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O'Brien and Soros combine for Burma mobile phone venture

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Denis O’Brien and George Soros eye up the high-potential telecoms opportunity in the Asian country

Denis O’Brien and George Soros eye up the high-potential telecoms opportunity in the Asian country

Denis O’Brien and George Soros eye up the high-potential telecoms opportunity in the Asian country

IRISH businessman Denis O'Brien has formally given details of his intention to seek a mobile phone licence as the market in Burma opens up to investment.

The telecommunications tycoon has joined forces with billionaire George Soros as they look to secure a telecoms licence in Myanmar, the huge Asian country also known as Burma, which is opening up to outside investment after recently embracing democracy following decades of often brutal military rule.

The Burmese government has been sounding out potential operators to set up and run two new telecoms services.

Fortune

Mr O'Brien's Digicel group has teamed up with George Soros' Quantum Strategic Partners and Burma's Yoma Strategic Holdings, which is headed by local businessman Serge Pun. The consortium has just submitted its pre-qualification application to the Burmese government.

"Digicel has been successful in entering recently liberalised markets and driving tele-density in underserved countries across the globe," said Mr O'Brien, who is chairman of Digicel and also a major shareholder in Independent News & Media.

"With current mobile penetration below 10pc in Myanmar (Burma), we are committed to rolling out a world-class telecommunications network," he added.

Digicel has operations across the Caribbean and Pacific region, and has become a major telecoms player in just over a decade. It has also made a fortune for Mr O'Brien, who was recently ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the world's richest people.

The low mobile penetration rate in Burma presents a significant opportunity for telecoms firms, but the Digicel consortium will face some stiff competition for licences up for grabs.

Vodafone has teamed up with China Mobile in an effort to gain a foothold, while there are a total of 22 telecoms groups chasing the licences and which have applied for pre-qualification. The first round of selection could be completed by next Thursday, with the final successful bidders expected to be revealed by the end of June.

Analysts expect the two licences could fetch more than $1.5bn (€1.1bn) for the Burmese exchequer. The licences will be awarded to build, own and operate national mobile networks for a 15-year period.

"The liberalisation of the telecoms market in Myanmar will serve as an important economic stimulus for the country," said George Soros. He was "delighted" to partner with Digicel and Yoma Strategic Holdings. Quantum Strategic Partners is a multi-strategy fund that invests in capital-intensive start-ups, buyouts, growth equity, and other transactions.

Mr Soros and Mr O'Brien were already acquainted through shared efforts to help rebuild the economy in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there in 2010.

Mr Pun, whose company is the only domestic-owned stockmarket listed company in Burma, said the consortium shared a "common objective" to deliver affordable communications to the country's population. Mr Pun was initially educated by Christian Brothers at St Paul's Catholic School in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, before his family fled the country in 1962 after a socialist coup.

His firms are involved in sectors from property to banking and tourism.

Irish Independent