Two weeks ago, May 25th to be exact, Internet service provider Ananda launched 4G service in Myanmar.
This launch is an event in Myanmar. Probably more for those that follow closely the telecom market than for the end consumers but still, Ananda brings something new to the table and here is why.
Ananda, new player in a highly competitive market
Ananda is the brand name of Amara Communication which is owned by IGE Group of Companies, Myanmar conglomerate with a diverse portfolio of businesses, including trade, real estate, construction, energy, financial services, hospitality, and telecommunications.
Amara Communication was the big surprise of the 4G auction that took place in October 2016. Most of the participants were seasoned service providers which already operate in Myanmar for years. This is not the case of Amara that had to build everything from scratch. The 4G auction saw Amara and Yatanarpon Teleport won the two biggest regions in Myanmar for a ludicrous amount of money: US$123M and US$107M respectively.
Since then, Yatanarpon realized its mistake and quietly withdrew its application leaving Amara alone with this burden.
Before we look at Ananda launch, it is important to understand the technology and why telecom providers in Myanmar fought fiercely to own the right to operate a chunk of this precious spectrum.
LTE which stand for Long-Term Evolution is a standard for high-speed wireless communication for mobile devices and data terminals. The latest LTE development allow telecom providers to provide speed as high as 1gbps on a single mobile device.
LTE come in two flavors: TDD and FDD. TDD is mostly favored by service providers as it is cost effective to transit asymmetrical traffic. Internet traffic is asymmetric by essence. FDD is preferred by mobile operators that need to transport both voice and Internet traffic over the same frequency and prefer symmetric channel for uplink and downlink.
Let’s keep in mind that at the time of this auction, the Myanmar broadband market was just picking up. Most of the new service providers used unlicensed spectrum (WiFi) as a cost effective access solution. Only few of them offered fiber to the home for high price.
As Wireless ISPs deployed more and more access points, radio spectrum became crowded. Interference started to pop up and customer experience rapidly degraded.
With this 4G auction, service providers had an unique opportunity to raise above the crowd and provide a better service to their customers in Myanmar.
The other big advantage of LTE is the light in-house setup which make the installation completely plug and play.
Unlike LTE, WiFi technology is less likely to penetrate into customer homes. Therefore an external setup is required which consist of a pole and an antenna that need to have complete line of sight with the transmitter.
Only exception, Myanmarnet started to roll out WiFi hotspot with a density so high that it became possible to avoid the heavy outdoor setup. As the ISP attracted more and more customers, Wifi signal started to weaken and Myanmarnet has since adressed this issue with a dodgy system of directional antennas pointing to the nearest access point through the window.
Last but not least, installation charges for broadband service in 2016 varied between 80,000 Ks to 300,000 Ks. Hard to compete with mobile operators and their $1 SIM cards.
For all these reasons, Broadband LTE made total sense in 2016 and promised to a big success in Myanmar.
Since then, things have changed considerably. Prices have been going down at an impressive pace. Installation charges are no longer a problem as most of the ISPs subsidized them at their own risk. In a nutshell, broadband in Myanmar is cheap! As ISPs start to hit the price floor, the capacity delivered to customers is also increasing. The first package which used to be 512kbps is now 4mbps for most of the service providers.
Considering these new facts, Ananda has an immense pressure to offer something new to the market. The key is no longer price or one time installation charges. Ananda has to be faster and better than the existing service providers. Considering the ridiculous license fee, Ananda has a craving need to gain subscribers quickly and will probably need to reach the million subs to recover its investment.
Ananda delayed launch
Considering the rapid evolution of the Myanmar market, it is clear that every month past is a missed opportunity for Ananda. The new service provider was supposed to launch end of 2017 but finally pushed back to the first quarter of 2018. A promise that Ananda was not able to keep and the 4G provider finally launched service end of May 2018.
Looking at the launch itself, we rapidly noticed that besides the flashy billboards all over Yangon, not much was done to make a strong impression to the market.
To our opinion, Ananda Internet marketing campaign was really weak and poorly executed. When we know the importance of Facebook in Myanmar, it is shocking to see Ananda running a Facebook page with only 19K fans the week of the launch (78K as of today).
Ananda website also suffers some major search engine optimization (SEO) issues. Hence, it is nowhere to be found in the first results on Google which is quite dramatic.
Looking at Ananda source code is like taking a time machine back to early 2000s. The webpage is crowded with meta keywords but does not even bother a meta description!
For those not familiar with search engine optimization, in September 2009 (nine years ago), Google announced officially that it “does not use the keywords meta tag in web ranking”.
Yoast the leading SEO plugin for wordpress also recommend for years to not use meta keywords anymore as it can have the reverse effect on your Google ranking.
Considering the amount of money spent by Amara on license fees and network equipment, it is quite shocking to see such small mistake jeopardize an entire launch. All the more as a good SEO audit only costs a few hundred dollars these days.
It is also surprising to see our website Internet In Myanmar which run with zero marketing budget rank 1st on Google for mostly every keyword related to Ananda 4G.
Right after Ananda launch, we have seen our website traffic grow significantly as Internet users interested by the new service provider in Yangon hit our pages.
Poor marketing, bold pricing
Price wise, Ananda is extremely aggressive. The launch bundle includes a MIFI device and one month unlimited internet for 35,000 Ks. This is hard to compete with if the quality is there.
After the first month, the packages are also attractive which an average price per MB half the price of mobile data.
Only disappointment is the lack of OTT. Ananda is just another service provider offering a dumb pipe. We are desperate to see TV and VoIP bundled with Internet to create value to a service provider offer.
And if TV is not an easy option to integrate, the recent collaboration between iflix and the mobile operators in Myanmar clearly demonstrate that it is possible to bring value to the table. Bundling iflix with Internet at the launch phase would have been a strike. Missed opportunity.
Ananda offers unlimited plans but are these true unlimited plans? Hard to say as there is no mention of any Fair Usage Policy (FUP) anywhere.
Our analysis is that a pure unlimited strategy is not sustainable: a Fair Usage Policy has to be implemented at some point if Ananda wants to keep a good and steady quality of service.
The risk with unlimited is clearly to see all the worst offenders from MPT, Ooredoo and Telenor converge to Ananda network and suck up the whole bandwidth with heavy downloads. And this is what is going to happen irremediably.
It is proven over and over all around the globe: unlimited is not a viable strategy for wireless networks and actually not even for fiber networks. Still, fiber capacity is much higher and it will take years before service providers really see the need for a fair usage policy. For wireless, it is months maybe weeks before the service quality suffers of this pricing strategy.
Ananda coverage issues
Right after the launch, the 4G provider has been hammered by angry customers complaining about performance issue. Network capacity is not an excuse as there is no way Ananda gained enough subscribers in a few days to saturate its whole network. The main reason evoked by customers -which we experienced as well- is coverage. Ananda suffers of a lot of weak spots all over Yangon where it can barely be used indoor.
Before unleashing the fury of Ananda technical team, it is important to say that this statement strictly represents our opinion and we haven’t (yet) run any extensive drive test to confirm it. However, looking at the Facebook reviews, it looks like we are not the only customers facing this issue. Ananda Facebook page hosts an endless list of negative comments where angry customers explain that they have to install the MIFI device outside their home to get proper signal.
This is probably not the only issue Ananda is facing at this stage but it is the most critical. With weak coverage, Internet performance cannot be stable and will fluctuate from very bad to average which is the worst experience a customer may have.
Problem for Ananda: mobile operators in Myanmar all benefit from recent upgrades and are now providing one of the fastest 4G in the world.
It is extremely worrying to see such technical issue popping up at launch phase. Coverage is not an easy problem to solve as Ananda will more likely have to deploy more sites to address this issue. Therefore, it will be extremely complicated for Ananda to convert its early adopters into faithful customers.
In conclusion, it goes without saying that Ananda has a great tool in hand. LTE is a mature and powerful technology that can help the operator achieve great results. But it looks like Ananda suffers major execution issues. This launch no matter how late it happened, was sloppy. Obviously, Ananda does not have the required number of sites to provide good and seamless network performance to its customers.
Launching in such condition seems a bit suicidal and certainly a waste of good marketing effort.
Let’s hope Ananda 4G will be able to recover soon from this damp squib and fix the crippling issues that could prevent it from the expected growth.
Herbert is a nom de plume.
I am an experienced telecom professional blogging about the fastest growing Internet market in the world: Myanmar.