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YANGON, Myanmar – Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt on Friday urged Burma's government to allow private businesses to develop the country's woeful telecommunications infrastructure, emphasizing the importance of competition and free speech.
"Try to keep the government out of regulating the Internet," he said to a round of applause from a group of students at a technical university in Yangon. "The answer to bad speech is more speech. More communication. More voices," he said. "If you are a political leader you get a much better idea of what your citizens are thinking about."
Schmidt said the Internet can help cement political and economic opening in Burma, also known as Myanmar, which has undergone rapid changes since reformist president Thein Sein took office in 2010 after decades of direct military rule.
"The Internet will make it impossible to go back," he said. "The Internet once in place guarantees communication and empowerment becomes the law and practice of your country."
He said Google's first priority in Burma will be to improve access to information with its search engine and applications such as translation and maps.
"Right now the thing Google can do most is get information into the country," he said.
Google on Thursday launched a local homepage, www.google.com.mm, which will allow the tailoring of Burma content. On Wednesday it unblocked the Google Apps store to allow access from within Burma. The U.S. lifted most sanctions on doing business in Burma last year. The company says it's also working to develop local language content.
Today, inadequate infrastructure and high prices mean only about 1 percent of people in Burma have access to the Internet, according to World Bank data, and less than ten percent have mobile phones, Schmidt said.
Data capable smartphones remain prohibitively expensive, averaging $563 in a nation where the average income is $60-70 per month, according to a February 2013 study by Radio Free Asia's Open Technology Fund.
Burma has just three Internet service providers, two of which are wholly or partially owned by the government. All connections, landline and wireless, run through a single fiber optic cable, connections to which haven't been updated since 2008, according to the Open Technology Fund report. Speeds are so slow that sometimes it is impossible to use Gmail.
"The government has to make it possible for the private sector to build the telecommunications infrastructure," Schmidt said. "If we do that right, within a few years the most profitable businesses within Burma will be the telecommunications companies."
He said he is scheduled to meet with Burma's president, Thein Sein, on Friday afternoon.
"I'll say they've made a courageous step to open the country," he said. "Now they have to follow through with it."
Schmidt's visit to Burma comes after trips to Libya, Afghanistan, and North Korea, which he said was a "truly wacky place."
USAID recently sponsored a delegation of executives from Cisco Systems, Google, HP, Intel and Microsoft to Burma. Earlier this month Cisco said it plans to establish two state-of-the-art network training centers in Burma.
Burma's local tech community was elated by Schmidt's visit.
"Google has a lot of resources to help, not just in Yangon and Mandalay," said Minn Thein, who came back to Burma in January after 19 years in the United States to help found Frontiir, a local tech start up focused on affordable technology. "If you can build a digital center in a rural area with broadband access, you can use it for education, information and health."