Two major developments regarding Internet access in Myanmar have emerged this week.
First: Just last month, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt visited Myanmar promising to help connect residents to the Web. Today, Google has begun to follow through on its word by introducing support in Burmese, the major local language.
Its local search portal — google.com.mm, which launched just before Schmidt’s visit — now supports the language, in addition to six others spoken in the country: Mon, Karen, Kayah, Pali, Rumai Palaung and Shan.
There’s no further news on the status of Android, which Schmidt said would be opened in the country. Google made its Android app store partially available on the eve of Schmidt’s trip, but it is still working to enable downloads to devices in the country.
While news of language support may not seem huge, the gesture from Google is significant, as it demonstrates its commitment to bringing its search portal, and access to information, to the world. Of course, cynics argue that this is simply another effort to boost Google’s bottom line by creating more users to serve ads to. But the introduction of local search will help millions of novice Internet users navigate the Web, to say the very least.
Meanwhile, as reported by Asian Correspondent, the government of Myanmar announced it will drastically reduce the price of SIM cards. Once retailing at a prohibitive $2,000 dollars a pop, SIM cards will now be available for just $2-3 US dollars – a price certainly affordable the average consumer. This marks the deliberate breaking down of a politically-motivated barrier to Internet access.
This development is much needed. According to statistics, it is estimated that only 2-3 million people in Myanmar own a cellphone – about 3% of the population. However, keep in mind that last January, HTC launched six of its phones in the region, complete with local language support. Cheaper Chinese devices are also available. With some of the key obstacles to Internet access removed, the conditions for an influx of new users are smoothly, gradually falling into place.
While that much is certain, we’ll have to wait and see exactly how free Myanmar’s Internet turns out. Indeed, the government has welcomed Eric Schmidt, who didn’t shy away from advocating an open Web in his speech. But with China looming large as the nation’s biggest investor, that country is definitely well positioned to take advantage of the new telecommunications space, which could have further implications for online freedom. Ultimately, the government will likely have to choose which philosophy to embrace: one akin to Google’s, or one on par with China’s.
For now, that choice remains down the road, and we can only watch for signs as Internet usage in Myanmar grows more widespread.
Headline image via Flickr/eguidetravel