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Piercing through adversaries to build a technology empire from square one

OVER TWO DECADES AGO, the concept of a middle-class household having internet connectivity or owning a mobile phone in Myanmar was as far-fetched as the country opening up to the world. Myanmar was under military rule since 1962 and isolated from the rest of the world. Access to the internet was restricted with only the affluent being able to afford it or by government officials using it.

After the government arrested the then Prime Minister KHIN NYUNT for unknown reasons in 2005, the internet was increasingly censored and Bagan Cybertech, the country’s first internet service provider owned by KHIN NYUNT’s sons, was nationalized. This led the state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunication to become the sole provider of the internet possessing all infrastructures and bandwidth. It was slow and expensive, refreshing a page would take around 5 minutes. Internet cafes did exist but the connection was slow and many websites especially foreign press and democracy-related sites were blocked.

But, the wind of change arrived after the 2010 general election which had the military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party winning a resounding victory. Under U THEIN SEIN, a former general, sworn in as the president of the quasi-civilian government, the country saw steps in liberalization and reforms being made including the liberalization of the telecommunications industry.

International carriers such as Norway-based Telenor and Qatar-based Ooredoo entered and prices of SIM cards dropped from around $250 in 2013 to $4-6 a piece two years later. While internet penetration was around 1% in 2011, it skyrocketed to 41% in January 2020, according to Datareportal. Mobile user’s subscription increased from 50.56 million users, 93% of the country’s total population, in January 2017 to 68.24 million, 126%, in January 2020.

One company was in the midst of encountering these hurdles but through perseverance they carved a path to the top. It was during the monsoon season of 1997, when three teenagers met at Yangon’s Computer Science College. As the military government shut down all universities and schools, they couldn’t do much studying, but they already had their eyes on their goal after they had the chance to use the Computer Lab of their college. Unlike average teenagers who would just be awed by the first encounter with a computer, they dreamed of something bigger – they started a small computer lab aiming to bring innovation in Myanmar and help other organisations to work in the country.

EuroMatters had an exclusive interview with the three cofounders U SHANE THU AUNG, U MIN SWE HLAING, and U THEIN THAN TOE of Global Technology Company (Global Net), a leader in providing world-class telecommunications services. This would be one of the first appearance where the three of them sat down together for an interview.

The trio tells us about their long journey from a small garage to becoming a pioneer in technology and telecom services. They pushed onwards through the military government restriction and connected Myanmar to the world. The portfolio of Global Technology Group includes telecom, media, technology, financial services, consulting and more. 5BB, a broadband service under GTC, is the fastest and leading Internet company in Myanmar.

GTC is also about inclusivity and empowerment, supporting career growth and offering employment to disable people. The business environment at the firm also encourages questioning and discussion: as U THEIN THAN TOE well expressed: “In our organization everybody is a teacher, everybody is a learner”.

The three met as teenagers at the Computer Science College in 1997 and they were curious and hungry for knowledge. When they got the chance to visit the college’s computer lab, they did not get the chance to surf the World Wide Web through Internet Explorer because there was no internet connection. But, these limitations didn’t stop them.

“The flame of our hunger for knowledge has been ignited and it cannot be extinguished. We were filled with so many questions – What is the internet and what does it mean? After returning home, we build a small computer lab in my parent’s garage. We tested one computer working as the internet server and other computers as devices.” U SHANE THU AUNG told the magazine.

From then on, they began digging more in search for an answer. In 1998, the trio encountered the Moore’s Law, by American engineer GORDON MOORE, which states that as transistors doubled their processing power yearly, the price of it would get lower and lower.

“This was a “eureka moment” for us. When we discovered the concept of linear and exponential growth, the wires in our brain connected and it was a revelation for us, this was a crucial step on our journey to provide better products and services in our market,” said U SHANE THU AUNG.

However, things were difficult for the three future techleaders of Global Technology Group as the military government then imposed restrictions on media as well as limited internet connectivity. But an insurmountable obstacle for some is an exciting challenge for others. “We were fortunate to have limited internet access and it’s unbelievable to think Myanmar had no access to Yahoo or Hotmail back then. The connection was slow and downloading a file of 1MB would take an hour or so,” said U MIN SWE HLAING.

“But, we were not discouraged. We considered it a challenge and opportunity. We tried to leverage this opportunity to reach the public and private sector interested in using this technology for their businesses.”

Soon after they had the opportunity to show how much their hard work was paying off. The Ministry of Health approached the trio to assist on World Health Organization Funded E-Health project: they had to build a E-Health Network, remote connectivity and information access to provide intranet services for the public hospitals across the country.

The technology built in the far 2003 still exists and functions as today, modern infrastructures were simply built on it, U THEIN THAN TOE commented.

To that U SHANE THU AUNG added that they made the longest-lasting rural connectivity and remote working functionality for the benefits of the public healthcare sector.

“We were aware that the Myanmar telecom regulatory experts were working on a reform program for the telecommunication sector since 2007-2008. The outside world was changing exponentially but the reform program was implemented only almost half a decade later. On April 12, 2013, U Thein Sein announced the plan to liberalise the telecommunications sector and the rest is history.” he told EuroMatters.

With the markets opening and new opportunities pouring in, they applied for the quickest telecom licence in order to be pioneers and have the “early-mover advantage”.

“We positioned ourselves as an infrastructure and internet solutions provider in 2013 as we wanted to build the system for our customers as system integrator, so we initially had not thought about expanding into the consumer market like today.” U MIN SWE HLAING said.

Our GTC fiber infrastructure covers over 25,000 km to almost all major states & divisions in Myanmar and carrier coverage reach to regional with 200 Gbps peering connectivity. GTC launched the first international internet gateway to Global after MNOs. Currently, GTC internet traffic is 25% of Myanmar total internet traffic which represent as a key internet and infrastructure providers for the citizens of Myanmar. Two out of four MNOs Networks are built on GTC Fiber infrastructure. Again, most of critical infrastructure services like financial institutions, ATM network, central bank and credit bureau network are running over our reliable, redundant, scalable and robust infrastructure.” U SHANE THU AUNG explained.

This was also the catalyst for them to launch their future award-winning service, 5BB Broadband Service. No other tech firm was addressing consumer’s problems: slow internet services at high price. Since the launch of the 5BB service in 2017, internet price sensibly decreased at the benefit of all consumers.

In 2020, the 5BB was awarded by Ookla the fastest ISP network. “This makes the 5BB service the first entity in Myanmar to receive such prestigious award. The test is run by the millions of test counts from the users. So every user using a phone or a computer makes a speed test, and according to these millions and million test counts, it defines which network is the best. So we didn’t know this, we do our best from end to end, from our network operation center to the user’s devices. And for that, we are very proud as citizens and a firm who make this happened.” U SHANE THU AUNG explained.

As U THEIN TAHN TOE further pointed out, the Ookla prize was not a victory for GTC only: “In 2019, Myanmar’s position in internet speed ranking was 121st on the Global Index, however, already in 2020, it jumped to the 118th position thanks to the 5BB Broadband’s prize as the Fastest ISP Network 2020 Award. 5BB team expressed its profound delight at the news of Myanmar upgraded position in the Global Index, and also their gratitude towards the authorities involved in the internet and telecommunication sector.

In our role as Myanmar internet market’s pioneers, we scaled up the value of our offers for different user experiences, while at the same time we became leaders in affordability by cutting down prices of thirty times from the market price, which created enormous potential in the Myanmar internet ecosystem.”

“For us, the end-to-end service quality is very important and our main advantage is that we have a license to provide that from our Data Centre to our clients. The [Ookla] award is thanks to our engineers, kudos to them. Even in the midst of the pandemic, our engineers were outside to repair the cables and to serve the customers,” U MIN SWE HLAING said.

In addition, GTC is partnering up with the Facebook Connectivity team to provide a cheap connection to the public. The project is still in progress but the company is “very eager” to set up many Wi-Fi hotspot zones in Myanmar, said U THEIN THAN TOE.

A higher level of data traffic flow smooths contents distribution, and permits a well-constructed, and well-allocated server network, which enable greater and more delightful user experiences. Our Consumer Operations focus on setting new benchmarks in customer experience to cement the Group’s position as the leading provider of next-generation communication, infotainment and technology services to consumers and small businesses across the country.

But this is not all. In 2020 Global Technology Company won both the gold medal for the Myanmar Employer award in the categories “the most innovative use of technology in HR” and “the best learning and development programme”, and the Employees’ Choice Best Company Award in Myanmar by JobNet, where the award is based on surveys from JobNet with single employees.

“We are very proud to receive these awards and we always have been proud of our technology-friendly line where we do customized products instead than the on-shelf products most companies use. We also have a quarterly leadership program where we train our employees to learn how to harmonize the workflow among the teams. We want our employees to not to do only their daily tasks but to be able to get themselves in better positions, better wages.” explained U SHANE THU AUNG.

The Employees’ Choice Best Company Award reflects how our employees view our organisation, said U MIN SWE HLAING, continuing that he is grateful to the employees for this award.

The reasons of the employee affection to their company are self-explaining, we just need to look how GTC treated their staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. As workplaces had to practice social distancing and remote working, this meant that fiber connectivity was required more than before.

“But, what this means from our side is that our team needs to be on the ground working and making sure the products are running smoothly. We provided them with face masks, face shields, gloves and spread awareness to them to socially distance themselves as much as possible,” said U THEIN THAN TOE.

Looking forward, the pandemic is also pushing for businesses and government to digitalise their services.

“Our leader has mentioned that the government supports the digital community and digital environment. I hope there will be more digital initiatives and digital economy movement, and that our country can give forth to new business strategy and business landscape. We do not have much of a choice than to follow the new normality. Every industry will need to utilize technology to futureproof themselves,” U SHANE THU AUNG highlighted.

The co-founders of GTC and leaders of the Myanmar technology industry are hoping to connect more people, transform their lives, using technology and driving the nation’s tech forward.

“As the leaders and co-founders of GTC we are designing more ways to bring people online. We are paving the way and making a difference,” U SHANE THU AUNG said. “We are building our infrastructure to run the world’s most demanding workloads and give businesses a more competitive edge.”

U THEIN THAN TOE pointed out on the need to transition to machine-to-machine connectivity in place of the archaic human-to-human method.

“We believe is that if we charge less we could get more demand, more volume and it can help us to research more. This will lead us to experiment more and create new products with a cheaper price. This is what we believe in.” he said.

Farmers will no longer need human resources if they can automate their work and transform the rural life to a digital one, which is something U MIN SWE HLAING, and his company are working on, as he tells Euromatters. Moreover, preparations are being made for the Next Generation Network, as 5G connectivity which will soon be available everywhere. Better and stable connectivity is a must not just for our smart phones but also for electrical appliances.

In conclusion we would like to mention our three pillars in the advanced technology space. One is the global technology enterprise Services, the second one the consumer related services and the third one is digital life style. Through a combination of these, GTC is driving Myanmar’s digital economy and digital transformation,” U SHANE THU AUNG said.

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