How can technology facilitate a country’s near immediate entry onto the world stage?

Jill Bronfman, Director of the Privacy and Technology Project at UC Hastings’ Institute for Innovation Law, recently interviewed UC Hastings alum Bob McDonald, currently Legal and Regulatory Advisor at Ooredoo Myanmar. Bob is based in Yangon, Myanmar, the country’s biggest city and former colonial capital until 2008. The country has evolved recently and rapidly into a laboratory for “leapfrog” technology, where a developing area chooses to forgo the historical path of evolving infrastructure and leaps into cutting-edge access. In this interview, Bob describes what it’s like to work for a foreign company, how technology can facilitate a country’s near immediate entry onto the world stage, and where the law has taken him since his graduation from UC Hastings. At the end of the interview, Bob offers some salient advice for law students and recent grads hoping to participate in this growing field.

The Q & A:

Jill: Hi, Bob, thanks for getting on the phone with me after hours for me and very, very early for you. Do you usually get up at 5 a.m.?

Bob: Yes, I do! I often have calls in the early morning hours with colleagues, family, and friends on the West and East coast of the U.S.. In Myanmar, I meet with local government staff during regular business hours. I’ve been here for about two and a half years, since 2014. In 2013, my company became one of the first private companies to receive a government license to offer mobile telecommunications services.

Jill: How did you wind up in Myanmar?

Bob: After law school, I started my career at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where I worked in fellow Hasting alum Commissioner Rachelle Chong’s office. I worked on a variety of domestic and international market liberalization issues at the FCC, often working with the U.S. Trade Representative and other government agencies to persuade foreign governments to open their markets to U.S. companies.

I’ve spent the last 20 years or so focusing on telecommunications market liberalization issues for a number of private companies and governments in many different markets around the world. The technology in the 1970s lent itself to monopolies, but when the technology evolved, a total monopoly didn’t make sense. Outside the U.S., governments had to take an additional step of privatizing the state-run telecom companies, a “tug of war” because, at least initially, international long distance telecommunications was a huge revenue source for foreign governments, while consumers were demanding the benefits brought by competitive telecommunications markets in terms of lower prices and more innovative services.

The U.S. long distance telecom market began allowing competition after the breakup of AT&T in the 1980s and 1990s, and then local competition came a few years later. Then the European Union (E.U.) and countries in other parts of the world began to introduce competition, which usually meant constraining the incumbents in order to let new entrants compete. Before I came to work for Ooredoo Myanmar, I was working with its parent company, Ooredoo Qatar. Ooredoo Qatar is the national phone company of Qatar and it was where I helped guide the company through the market liberalization process after it was privatized.

Jill: Do you still use the term “leapfrog technology” to describe telecom entry into new marketplaces? What does it mean with today’s available tech?

Bob: Myanmar is a great example of a country that is able to take advantage of some “leapfrog” technologies. For example, there are only about 200,000 fixed telephone lines in the country of 51 million people, but mobile services now have 25-30 million customers. It’s unlikely that fixed phone lines will ever come close to the number of mobile connections, given the far more efficient economics of wireless systems. Also, my company decided to deploy an all “3G” speed network, bypassing older 2G networks that are still commonly used in many countries, and we just launched 4G services simultaneously. These newer technologies make far more efficient use of available radio spectrum than the older systems. Now, of course, it’s all about data.

Jill: Who uses mobile in Myanmar? Does anyone not use mobile devices?

Bob: Everyone in Myanmar uses mobiles, and in fact a large number of people have two Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards, which gives them the ability to access two networks, and simply use the network that happens to have the best price/quality for what they need. Our data usage per customer at my company now is close to that of European data users, and people are using their phones for similar types of services – YouTube, music streaming, Facebook, chatting, VoIP calls, etc. Network coverage is now over 80% of the population, and coverage is advancing into more remote areas monthly.

Jill: I’m working on a paper on Chinese privacy law, and thinking about how technology use is influenced by culture. Are there cultural differences that affect the adoption of this new technology or that cause the tech to be used in different ways?

Bob: The biggest cultural difference has to do with language. Since there is limited content available in the local language, user-generated content in Burmese is very popular. In our market surveys, we found that many people made no distinction between Facebook and the Internet, as it is the on-ramp to the Internet for many.

Jill: That’s amazing. What’s the weirdest thing anyone has asked you to do as part of your current job/career? Have there been awkward cultural moments?

Bob: Well, graft and corruption are huge issues and constant challenges. Luckily, I don’t have to deal with those issues directly, but we have to be very careful. We’re held to a much higher standard than most companies here because we’re one of the first major international investors in several decades. Culturally, I have only positive things to say. The people in Myanmar are uniquely positive, and are almost universally friendly and welcoming of foreigners. It’s like no other country in which I’ve worked.

Jill: If I taught a course in Mobile Communications Law, what should it cover in order to be useful to students? Also, how important is data privacy in this industry?

Bob: Well, the bad news is that things change so quickly in this industry that whatever you cover in your class may be in danger of being irrelevant by the time your students are practicing for a couple years. I’d put a plug in to add an element in about international telecoms law, too. Important aspects include the role of international organizations, differences between the U.S. and other parts of the world, and the role of changes in technology on the international dynamic.

I think privacy is one of the critical issues right now at so many levels, including privacy of customer information, privacy rights of citizens, cultural differences around the world (e.g. China vis-a-vis the U.S. vis-a-vis the E.U.), and government surveillance. Limiting the scope will be the challenging part.

Other big issues impacting mobile communications are net neutrality and application of antitrust law shaping the industry. I would also look at the coming 600 MHz incentive auctions and what they mean for the future of broadcast television, and how that plays out as the demand for radio spectrum for mobile broadband becomes more intense.

Jill: And would you be able to visit for a guest lecture in Mobile Communications Law?

Bob: I would love to.

Jill: Who is doing innovative things in developing world telecom (besides you!)?

Bob: Both Grameen Phone in Bangladesh and Safaricom in Kenya are leaders in mobile financial services, which is having a positive effect on people’s lives in countries with large numbers of “unbanked” people. Ecommerce is not well-developed in these countries and these are early days for mobile money. There’s also a huge amount of technology innovation happening here in the U.S. and other advanced countries involving esoteric technologies that will be transparent to the user, but result in huge new efficiencies and flexibilities with how our devices are designed and used, such as software-defined radio, “5G” and other advanced technologies. Still, the big issue to resolve in mobile finance is going to be trust in areas where consumers historically did not trust the government or corporations.

Jill: What kind of training did you receive in law school or otherwise that you’ve found useful in your current job? I’ve just taught a new Privacy Compliance Class in Spring 2016, and I’m trying to make legal education more relevant to practice.

Bob: My current job combines solid legal thinking with a sound understanding of the cultural and political context to guide the decisions and recommendations I make. The “think like a lawyer” training I got at Hastings is the foundation of this, but the rest comes from interacting with colleagues and peers and reading the newspaper. While I do need a substantive understanding of the relevant statutes and regulations, those are merely the broad backdrop for the decisions and recommendations I make daily. Legal and regulatory compliance is far more fluid and flexible in a country like Myanmar, and telling the CEO what he should and should not do with our investors’ money is far more complex than just reading the rule and writing a memo about what it says.

Jill: Thanks for sharing your experience with the UC Hastings community. To wrap, what advice would you have for new lawyers in the mobile telecom and technology fields?

Bob: I guess my main advice would be to dive in deep and learn about what’s happening and specialize to the extent you are able, but people should always keep learning. The technology drives the legal issues, and the technology evolves quickly. So more so than in a lot of fields, it’s important to know where the industry trends are going and where the technology is headed so you can respond accordingly. Universally, as for most areas of the law, do solid work and establish a good network.

Jill Bronfman would like to thank Alex A.G. Shapiro, Director of External Relations, for connecting her with Bob McDonald so she could reminisce about her former career as a telecom law firm attorney and as Assistant General Counsel at Verizon. She would also like to thank Professor Robin Feldman and the staff of the Institute for Innovation Law for their enthusiastic support.