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3G internet just arrived for Myanmar farmers, but they've had Facebook for ages

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Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a small nation that borders Bangladesh, China, and Thailand, and it’s going through a revolution — not with guns and protests and online. Many villages are still without running water, but new 3G cell towers that have sprung up like crops in springtime are facilitating high-speed Internet access — a first for many of the country’s mostly rural inhabitants.

To understand why this is significant requires opening up the history books. For the unfamiliar, control of Burma, after gaining independence from the United Kingdom in the 1940s, ended up in the hands of a military junta, despite attempts to build a democratic nation. The dictatorship, which renamed Burma as Myanmar, isolated the country from the rest of the world, keeping its residents in poverty and slowing progress. In 2011, the junta dissolved and Myanmar’s rule was replaced with a civilian government. Since then, the country has been building its infrastructure.

Rural farmers may be seeing smartphones for the first time, but they’ve had Facebook accounts for ages.

Here’s the funny thing: Although residents are just starting to get online, they are already familiar with a common piece of Internet technology: Facebook. As Craig Mod of The Atlantic discovered, rural farmers may be seeing smartphones for the first time, but they’ve had Facebook accounts for ages.

They don’t use it to snoop through photos of old school friends and co-workers – the data costs would be too high – but instead use it for news. Articles shared on global events are much easier to parse quickly on a site like Facebook than trawling through picture- and video-heavy news sites filled with stories that are rarely relevant to their situation.

Political news is of key importance to the farmers; living far removed from the cities, they don’t have ready access to what’s going on in the upper echelons of government. With Facebook they can keep up to date far more easily. Some do use it for chatting, but not with immediate friends. Those they just call and use the older cellular network, which is faster and cheaper. Anyone they do chat with on Facebook tends to be a stranger from somewhere else in the world.

Although data is high-speed now thanks to the burgeoning 3G networking in Myanmar, it still isn’t cheap by local standards. A dime gets you 25MB of data (as per The Atlantic) but that gets chewed up quickly. It doesn’t stop them viewing pictures on occasion though — one showed the interviewer a photo of a five-legged cow that he was very pleased with.

Prices should improve in the future. Now that government controls have been lifted and competition between telecom providers can flourish, access to Internet sources of information and communication should become ever easier.

For now, people will continue to find ways around using data. Many with smartphones use Zapya to share applications among local networks of users. This lets them view pictures, videos, and other information without chewing through all of their own data.

Many people also rely on the expertise of shop owners to help them install applications and set up their new (read: second-hand) phones. As phones and their use becomes more ubiquitous, this seems likely to change.

It will be interesting to see a modern, Internet economy develop over the next decade, without the legacy technology that saddles Western countries. What will Myanmar become?

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