Who’s afraid of mobile phones?

Aug 24, 2009 (LBO) – The past few weeks have been bad for mobiles and modernity. In Sri Lanka, a girl commits suicide using a school tie. In response, mobiles are banned in government schools as well as in private and international schools. (I’m still wondering who gave this authority to the telecom regulator).

Students as well as teachers are prohibited from using mobiles (hopefully only in school).

The Telecom Regulatory Commission is encouraging a payphone operator to quickly set up operations in schools. Next thing you know they will decree that school vans be replaced by bullock carts (since there is a surfeit of bullocks in this land and carts are more in line with our culture).

Much has been said about these matters that I need not repeat here. But some international comparisons appear pertinent.

The International Telecommunication Union, the UN body that deals with telecom matters, collects and publishes comparative data that I happened to analyze for a different purpose. It is more common to look at the data for the high performers (in whose ranks Sri Lanka now sits), but perversely, I decided to look at the low performers.

The table that was generated was quite illuminating.

Here are the eight countries that occupy the cellar in terms of connecting their citizens through mobiles. The third column shows the number of active SIMs (or mobile connections) in 2008 according to the ITU.

The fourth column shows the compound annual growth rate over a five-year period (better than just year-on-year growth) and the last column shows active SIMs or mobile connections per 100 people. For comparison, the 2008 number for Sri Lanka was 55.24 active SIMs per 100 people. For Bangladesh, it was 27.90. So you can see that the countries in this table are truly leading from the rear.

Active SIMs, 2003 (‘000) Active SIMs, 2008 (‘000) CAGR, 2003-08 (%) Active SIMs/100
DPR Korea
Myanmar 66.5 375.8 41.4 0.76
Eritrea 108.6 2.2
Cuba 35.4 331.7 56.5 2.96
Ethiopia 51.3 3,168.3 128.1 3.93
Papua New Guinea 17.5 300 103.5 4.67
Burundi 64 480.6 49.7 5.95
Turkmenistan 9.2 347.6 148 6.98

Among this group, several such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea and Turkmenistan are showing rapid growth from low bases. That is because they have introduced some form of competition in recent years, or at least a threat of credible entry (Ethiopia).

But note the countries with both low penetration and low growth: DPR Korea, Myanmar, Eritrea, Cuba and Burundi. All totalitarian states. They don’t have mobiles and they don’t like ‘em. They are afraid of mobiles. But do they fear fixed?

Fixed lines, 2003 (‘000) Fixed lines, 2008 (‘000) CAGR, 2003-08 (%) Fixed/100, 2008
DPR Korea 980 1180 4.8 4.97
Myanmar 363 708.9 18.2 1.44
Eritrea 38.1 40.4 1.2 0.82
Cuba 724.3 1103.6 8.8 9.85
Ethiopia 404.8 908.9 17.6 1.13
Papua New Guinea 62.9 60 -1.2 0.93
Burundi 23.9 30.4 4.9 0.38
Turkmenistan 376.1 457.9 5 9.2

An interesting contrast, indeed. These totalitarian states are not too bad with fixed phones. Cuba had 9.85 fixed connections per 100 people in 2008, higher than what we had before the CDMA boom (we had 17.18 “fixed” connections per 100 people in 2008). Myanmar, the sick man of our region, still has more fixed lines per 100 people than Bangladesh (0.84). Famine-afflicted, rocket-endowed DPR Korea still can afford 4.97 fixed lines per 100 people.

And Turkmenistan, once the land of Beyik Turkmenbashi (Great Leader of the Turkmen), President for Life, Saparmurat Niyazov, has 9.2 fixed connections per 100, just short of Cuba, the personal property of the Castro brothers.

Doctors in Turkmenistan used to take an oath not to Hippocrates but to Beyik Turkmenbashi; in this strange country in those strange days January was called Turkmenbashi and April Gurbansoltan, in honor of his late mother. And in the capital, Ashgabat, there is a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot gold statue of the now dead President-for-Life that rotates to face the sun.

The Great Turkmenbashi had banned opera, ballet, beards, long hair, makeup (for television anchors), and gold-capped teeth. He valued fruit: there is still a national holiday to commemorate the indigenous melon. (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/05/01/060501ta_talk_remnick).

You get the drift? Who likes fixed phones? Who fears mobiles?

After the passing of the Great Turkmenbashi, his former dentist Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow assumed power. It is rumored, unjustly, that the former dentist, whose duties included the removal of banned gold caps from the teeth of Turkmen women as decreed by Beyik Turkmenbashi, shares some genes. He has, as part of Deniyazovization, allowed a degree of competition in his land, with the Russian operator MTS holding 85 percent share of a growing mobile market.

There were only 9,200 mobile connections when Beyik Turkmenbashi was in charge. All of them may have been owned, perhaps, by his children. This in a country so rich in oil and gas that it can afford to give every citizen free electricity, free water and free gas. They charge two cents for a liter of petrol.

Absolutely nothing like Sri Lanka, which charges even for water, and is home to over 10 million mobiles.

There were 347,600 mobiles in Turkmenistan in 2008. Surely, there could not have been that many Turkmenbashi and Berdimuhamedow progeny. It is indeed Spring in Ashgabat.