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Top ups go high-tech

REFRESH Mobile intends its electronic top-up technology to challenge scratch cards in Cambodia as the primary method for adding credit to prepaid mobile phone accounts, company insiders said.

But some in the industry said scratch cards will be an entrenched part of Cambodia’s mobile phone culture for years to come.

Refresh distributes a handheld device that independent dealers use to sell top-up authorisation codes, thereby eliminating mobile operators’ need to produce scratch cards outside the country, import and then sell them, company officials said.

“We eradicate all those costs immediately,” said Ian Watson, Refresh Mobile’s founder and a major investor.

Dealers sell top-ups in commons amounts, such as US$5, $10, $20 and $50. Refresh’s devices then connect wirelessly with the company’s computer servers to generate the authorisation codes typically held on scratch cards. A receipt containing the code is printed and given to the customer.

Information can be displayed in both English and Khmer, making the devices more accessible to a larger number of Cambodians, Watson said.

He claimed companies can save between $1 million and $2 million by using Refresh’s top-up machines, in addition to getting a measure of security scratch cards cannot offer. While scratch cards can be stolen and resold, stolen top-up machines are immediately disabled by Refresh, company officials said.

Watson also touted the device’s ability to deliver real-time data for mobile operators, as well as advertising to customers on the printed receipts.

At present there are over 6,500 devices in 19 provinces across Cambodia, with plans to have 12,000 on the market by the year’s end, according to Watson.

He said Refresh so far has signed a deal with only Mobitel, which operates the service under its V-Load brand. But the company is in “detailed negotiations with a number of carriers ready to sign long-term contracts,” he said.

Mobitel Chief Operating Office Kay Lot said that while early adoption of Refresh’s electronic top-up devices was slow, it has been picking up speed.

“We are beginning to see quite a positive take-up,” he said, adding, “This is where the future is going.”

Still, scratch cards will remain a popular top-up choice for some time.

“We recognise the tradition of scratch cards,” he said. “It’s not just something you can change overnight.”

Mobitel General Manager David Spriggs shrugged off suggestions that Refresh would cut into his company’s Cellcard Cash service, which among other functions allows customers to top up their prepaid accounts via their mobiles.

“They’re just different ways of topping up,” he said. “I don’t see any problem with having multiple options for customers.”

Although Mobitel is the only one of Cambodia’s eight mobile operators presently using the service, others have expressed interest.

Hello plans to hold preliminary discussions with Refresh, according to its Chief Executive Officer Simon Perkins.

He said that while he’s interested in the technology, he does have questions about its viability. Most importantly, he wondered if consumers were ready to give up such a popular method of topping up their mobile accounts.

“I think it’s complimentary to scratch cards,” he said of Refresh’s offering, “but it’s not going to replace scratch cards for a long, long time.”

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