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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia hits the Info Superhighway

Cambodia hits the Info Superhighway

Cambodia has entered cyber-space: the Internet has come to town. Nick Lenaghan

looks at how it works, who's using it and the business competition to cater to the

fledgling information technology market.

"CONGRATULATIONS and welcome to cyberspace. Cambodian Americans are anxiously

waiting to be communicating with our fellow Khmer in Cambodia via the Internet."

This greeting, from the US-based Internet group Suorsdey Corp, is one of many messages

received on the comment line of Cambodia's first Internet service, Camnet, which

opened its doors for business less than a month ago.

Already a steady stream of both the curious and the entrepreneurial - Cambodian professionals,

researchers and students, and local and foreign business people - are arriving each

day at Camnet's public access point, Lidee Khmer, an association of Cambodian researchers.

Thay Sothun, computer technical assistant at Lidee Khmer, is enthusiastic about the

benefits that will flow from Cambodia's connection to the Internet, as he recalls

his initial experience on the web.

"I went to Moscow first because I wanted to see the newspapers in Russian. Russian

is my second language. I read the papers and watched Russian videos," he says.

While Sothun uses the Internet in a professional capacity, browsing the web to update

his knowledge of information technology, he occasionally has time to pause for a

chat through a "chatroom", a website that allows people in different parts

of the world to hold real-time conversations.

"We asked where they were from, we talked about politics. One person asked me

who I was going to vote for in 1998. You type and you see your answer immediately.

"We had four people talking, one person from France and one from Australia joined

in. It was very late for them. We asked many questions, discussed and joked,"

says Sothun of a recent chat.

Camnet was set up as a cooperative venture between the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications

(MPTC) and the International Development Research Center of Canada (IDRC), which

provided a three-year, $366,000 grant.

So far Camnet has connected over 90 users and is taking on commercial clients, while

providing a heavily subsidized service to government ministries, universities, and

Cambodian NGOs.

On the commercial front, Camnet already faces stiff competition from a second Internet

service, Big Pond, which was launched by the Australian telecommunications giant,

Telstra, on June 2.

Camnet officials remain confident that their service will survive in the new environment

and fulfill its mission of spreading the Internet message through low-cost service

to Cambodian institutions.

"We haven't advertised in the newspapers yet but we are getting many calls and

inquiries from applicants. It's a good sign," says MPTC Undersecretary of State,

Koy Kim Sea, adding that he is not "overly worried" about competition from

Big Pond.

As IDRC funding for the service tapers off after three years, the full toll of sustaining

Camnet's 64 kilo/bit satellite connection, at over $12,000 a month, will fall to

the commercial accounts Camnet has attracted. Revenue from Camnet's commercial users

will also carry the burden for the service's subsidized accounts.

"Initial impressions are that [the Camnet service] should be sustainable because

the costs are very low and commercial sales are going very well," says Bill

Herod, an IDRC research assistant working at Lidee Khmer who has been involved in

setting up the Camnet service.

Herod has been surprised by the "level of enthusiasm" shown already by

commercial customers for Camnet's services, which include permanent leased lines

to the Internet, or "dial up" accounts allowing clients to connect to it


"Hotels and serviced apartments are talking about multiple accounts for different

floors. Offices are talking about leased lines when we expected just a dial-up account,"

says Herod.

While much of the commercial interest in Camnet's services has come from foreign

businesses and individuals, Camnet officials say there is a growing interest in the

Internet from Cambodians, restrained only by lack of knowledge about the technology.

In addition, Camnet officials maintain their mission is not solely to go head to

head with Telstra in the battle for market share, but also to "seed the market".

Low cost accounts provided to Cambodian institutions will prepare the ground for

a new generation of Cambodian Internet users.

"The Internet is not only for foreigners. A lot of [Cambodian] people want to

use it, but we need more workshops to explain how the Internet works," says

Moa Chakrya, Network Operations Manager at Camnet.

For Chakrya, access to the Internet is a short-cut to information sorely needed to

hasten the pace of development in Cambodia, particularly in professional fields.

"People can get information more easily than before. There are not enough books

in Cambodia. We cannot buy them.

"We can learn what's new, what's going on with all kinds of information related

to agriculture, medicine, technology...," he adds.

Staff at Camnet are still learning the ropes and will not begin charging their customers

for Internet traffic until next month, as they await feedback from their users on

their service.

"This is Cambodians doing it for Cambodians themselves. It's normal to have

problems. This is the way we want to do it, learning by experience. It's a long-term

plan, that's our strategy," explains Chakrya.

According to Telstra's Internet manager, David Lewis, Big Pond has connected an "encouraging

mixture of customers", both local and foreign. More than 30 Internet accounts

were opened at Big Pond within three days of its launch and the number "has

gone up considerably since then".

Big Pond's strategy is to increase local content on their servers, including web

pages in Khmer script, to "bring the Internet to Cambodia", says Lewis.

"It is not just Cambodia joining the world but the world coming to Cambodia.

It's a two-way thing, not just Cambodia reaching out to the rest of the world. There's

got to be locally grown content."

Although Big Pond's rates for dial-up and leased line connections are marginally

higher than Camnet's, Lewis says Telstra's reputation for service, and the support

from the company's Australian parent, will give Big Pond a competitive edge in Cambodia's

emerging Internet market.

Officials at both Camnet and Big Pond sought to allay user concerns that the services'

64 kilobit satellite link will become congested as demand increases.

Both services are monitoring for congestion and have more equipment ordered to expand

their capacity, but the real problem lies with Cambodia's phone network, according

to Lewis.

"People who are using slower lines will probably restrict themselves to using

text based services, such as e-mail, newsgroups and chats," he explains.

Land lines provide the best connection; but even radio phones and mobile phones,

although slower, can be adequate, since the user can simply "turn off the graphics"

while they browse the Internet, according to Lewis.

As well, back-up servers have been installed at both Camnet and Big Pond which will

"cache" frequently used websites, thereby reducing the reliance on the

satellite link and the possibility of congestion.

The launch of the two Internet services has also slashed the costs of sending and

receiving e-mail, which is one of the most popular uses of the Internet, according

to Big Pond's Internet manager.

"Most users tend to use e-mail first. Staying in touch with people all over

the world is perhaps the most immediate advantage of Internet access,' says Lewis.

Nevertheless, local e-mail companies appear unfazed by the development and remain

confident that they can still provide a service for customers who only require access

to e-mail.

"Basically, the idea is if you have a flat rate for a number of Internet services

and you are using e-mail only it has to be cheaper than these services," explains

Xavier Lalanne, who runs a local e-mail company, World Mail.

Previously, World Mail clients were paying up to $150 per month for their e-mail

but when the company connects to Camnet by the end of the month the cost will come

down to a flat rate of "around $30 a month", says Lalanne.

Camnet officials say they are happy to connect local e-mail companies and allow them

to handle the business, while their competitor, Big Pond, is restricted under its

license from providing "wholesale" Internet access to local e-mail firms.

The issue of Internet censorship - government controls over material which is politically

objectionable or pornographic - is one hurdle officials from Camnet and Big Pond

do not expect to face.

According to Bill Herod, it would be fruitless to attempt to prevent users receiving

objectionable material, such as information about sex tourism, when the same information

can be gained through other sources.

"Misinformation or information you're not pleased with can be shared by mail,

by fax, by telephone, by Internet. Why would you take Internet away, why don't you

just disconnect everybody's telephone or fax machine? The Internet is just another

medium of exchanging information," says Herod.

Government control over what people put on the Internet is unnecessary and best left

in the hands of the Internet services, he argues.

"Rather than have the government talking about some sort of regulations which

would be difficult or impossible to enforce, why not let market forces play? The

host of the server could make a decision about what they would accept or reject for

storage on their server."

MPTC Undersecretary of State Koy Kim Sea, who looked into Singaporean controls on

the Internet on a recent visit there, is not expecting the government to exercise

stiff controls over Internet use in Cambodia.

"Cambodia is looking at the way Singapore is doing [censorship]. It may copy

the parts which are applicable and sensible for Cambodia," says Kim Sea.

"We don't want to limit it. I think we will probably be a bit more liberal than

Singapore in that aspect," he adds.



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