Burma's Newly Opened Internet Slows to a Crawl

Internet access in Burma, which had until recently blocked websites deemed to be a threat to state security, now faces another setback -- although this one doesn’t stem from government repression.

According to Zaw Min Oo, the chief engineer at the country’s Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs, there is a problem with the underwater fiber-optic cable that connects Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Western Europe. The problem is said to be somewhere between Burma and Singapore, with technicians expecting to locate it more than a week ago but apparently having been thwarted, at least temporarily.

Completed in 2000, the cable is 39,000 km long, the longest in the world. It is operated by India's Tata Communications and 92 other investors from the telecom industry. With 39 landing points, it stretches from Norden, Germany, through the Mediterranean, past the Horn of Africa, splits in Asia and goes to Japan and Australia.

The fact that there is a cable there at all, and that the Internet is starting to become a feature of the everyday life of the average Burmese, is startling. An estimated 400,000 people are now using the Internet, mainly in the larger cities, according to international estimates. The country ranked second to last in Internet freedom in a report called “Freedom on the Net 2011,” released in April by the Washington, DC-based information watchdog Freedom House. However, that seems bound to change as the country cautiously opens up.

It is one of the considerable number of changes that have occurred since elections last November that were widely regarded as rigged to protect the military, which had run the country for decades. The government lifted a ban on sensitive websites including exiled news groups, international news agencies and sites like Youtube in September. However, many Internet users still use proxy sites to gain access to sites such as Gmail and Gtalk.

Although cable service is largely taken for granted across the world, an earthquake off Taiwan damaged cables 3,400 meters below the surface of the sea that handed billions of data transmissions across the Pacific ocean on Dec.26, 2006, causing chaos across Asia. China Netcom lost 75 percent of its cable capacity. The international Internet circuit was cut to about 15 percent of capacity, leaving Hong Kong and other cities almost without full cable communications for days before cable traffic was routed onto satellites and other cables.

In Burma, Internet users are complaining about the problems. The owner of an Internet café in Rangoon said his customers frequently complain of receiving a message about the cable, called SEA ME WE 4, when they attempt to open a browser.

“I called Yadanabon Teleport, my wife’s internet provider, but they just said they weren’t sure why our connection was down,” he said. “They said other internet cafes still had access, but that connection speeds were slow.”

Zaw Min Oo, the government official, said the government also plans to upgrade the land telecoms cables, which connect the country to China and Thailand. Although financial agreement has been reached, he said, some technical issues still need to be resolved. The country currently has a connection at 3.1 gigabytes per second but plans to more than double that, to 5.7 gigabytes soon.

In the past, according to a Rangoon-based blogger who asked to remain anonymous that vague ‘technical problems” have often been given in the past as the reason for the disruptions in service, noting that in the past the Internet has been shut down entirely during periods of political unrest – most notably during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, during which Internet users posted videos and images of the ensuring crackdown, sparking international outrage against the regime.

“Slow connection speeds are normal when there is heavy reliance on one source of Internet access, and that source has been disrupted,” said a Rangoon-based blogger. “Burma shouldn’t rely mainly on the underwater cable, but should also upgrade its land fibre-optic cables and expand bandwidth.” At last, that appears about to change, if Zaw Min Oo’s comments can be believed.