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Web monopoly fears grow

Telecommunications firms rally against plan to consolidate Internet control.

TELECOMS are voicing increased concerns about a government plan to funnel all Internet service providers (ISPs) through a central exchange point, as officials indicate they are looking to carry out the plan as soon as possible.

On Friday, representatives of telecommunications companies and other industry insiders gathered to discuss the plan, and some aired concerns that it would result in unreliable service and cost increases, crippling Cambodia’s burgeoning IT industry.

“This monopoly will inhibit development of the telecommunication market by imposing additional unnecessary costs on the operators, without increasing security or network performance,” said Javier Sola, secretary of the Information Communication Technology Association of Cambodia, who attended the meeting.

Mao Chakrya, director general of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, said earlier this month that the government intended to grant the state-run company Telecom Cambodia (TC) control over the country’s domestic Internet exchange (DIX) – a service that allows local ISPs to interconnect without having to send information through expensive international channels.

The government has reportedly sought such a hub for nearly a decade, and Mao Chakrya said he did not know when exactly the change would be made. The “timescale depends on TC”, he said. “We will enforce – no, inform – other companies to get all the connections through [TC’s] DIX.”

Lao Saroeun, TC’s director general, said Monday that TC was already operating a DIX and had the infrastructure in place to become the country’s sole exchange, but that he was waiting on the go-ahead from the ministry as well as on cooperation from the private sector. “We are waiting for [the ISPs] to register with us, and we will [connect] them,” he said.

Several industry insiders have said they believe the government wants to make the change this year. “It looks like they want to do it as soon as possible, but I’m not sure that they can do it,” Sola said.

Mao Chakrya said the change was designed to enable the ministry to better monitor Internet traffic, and that it was motivated chiefly by concerns for national security. “The government wants to see all domestic Internet exchange for security matters,” he said.

However, industry insiders have said a state-run DIX would not improve security, and that the move is more likely financially motivated.

One telecommunications company founder, who spoke on condition of anonymity because “it’d be quite easy for them to shut us down”, said the ministry had started citing security concerns as the goal behind the plan after the original argument that a centralised DIX would make Internet access cheaper for everyone had been disproved.

He noted that national security is generally the domain of the Interior Ministry, not the MPTC. “Usually what happens is, in other countries, it’s the Ministry of Interior who is responsible for security, and they usually have boxes which they’ll give to their telcos to plug into their networks to eavesdrop; they don’t try and run [the network] themselves,” he said.

Mike Gaertner, chief operations manager of CIDC-IT, an ISP and gaming company that is Cambodia’s biggest local content provider, said TC, which is state-run, would be able to profit handsomely under the new arrangement.

According to a pricing list that was removed within hours of its being posted on TC’s Web site on January 21, companies that use more than 31 megabits per second would be charged a fee for the overrun.

Gaertner said these charges would translate into costs of around US$11,250 per month for CIDC-IT.

He said consumers would also be charged around the same amount for accessing CIDC-IT content, which means that TC would stand to collect up to US$22,500 per month from CIDC-IT’s traffic alone.

Critics of the proposed change say the introduction of charges for DIX would crush smaller telecommunications companies and discourage new enterprise and foreign investment.

Two private companies are currently providing free DIXs in Cambodia, thereby promoting domestic Internet traffic, which one insider who spoke on condition of anonymity said leads to lower costs and faster connection times for everyone.

Though domestic Internet traffic accounted for only 10 percent of all traffic in Cambodia, he said domestic Internet traffic had been growing steadily over the last few years and predicted the Kingdom could become a global competitor in the IT industry within the next few years – so long as growth is not stifled by the introduction of new charges.

Others said TC’s service was unreliable, and that a state-run company would be unlikely to provide 24-hour service and maintenance – especially one that had no competitors.

TC’s Lao Saroeun said concerns raised by the private sector about TC’s ability to operate a reliable DIX were just a pretext to avoid state monitoring.

Private companies “want to work on their own. If they work on their own, how can we control them?” he said.

Telecommunications industry representatives hope to discuss the proposed change with Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon during a meeting scheduled for March 9.




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