Norbert Klein, 70, is widely recognized as being the first person to introduce an internet service to Cambodia. Little did the pioneering German know in 1994 that setting up a primitive form of email for his colleague at the Ministry of Agriculture, where he worked as a consultant, would help bring the worldwide web to the impoverished, low-tech country he has lived in since 1990. Brendan Brady talks to Klein about Cambodia’s foray into the internet era.
Norbert Klein says part of the reason internet access costs so much in Cambodia is because the government believes it will benefit more from high internet charges than from having more people using the web.
How did internet here come about?
I was an early user of email in Germany before I came to Cambodia in 1990, but otherwise I was not at all educated in this field. I received an installation dos floppy disk from Colombia. I had this telephone number at Oxford University for testing the system.
We had agreed from 12:00 to 12:15 local time here we would plug our computer into the telephone and (both) would be available. I tried and nothing at all happened. I tried again and again, at $5 a minute, and reset different buttons and finally it worked.
I had a telephone number in San Francisco that I called to send out all emails from Cambodia and all emails intended to be delivered in Cambodia. It was a store-forward system. All emails (bound for Cambodia) went there and stayed until I called in.
The goal at that time was really to get my colleague email. I didn’t think beyond that, I didn’t think of bringing the internet to Cambodia. But then I wanted to use it myself, and then someone at UN Development Programme asked, “You have email, can I also use it?” So I installed it for UNDP. They talked to the World Food Programme, friends talked to friends. After that, there were about 40 people (with internet).
Who did you work with in Cambodia when starting setting up internet here?
We did not make a commercial announcement. It was people who knew this system exists in the world and heard about what I did from word of mouth. I only approached the ministry of posts and communications because I didn’t want to do anything illegal. They said there are no laws. It was not authorized by anyone in Cambodia because there was no structure for it.
At the time, what did people around you know about the internet?
In 1994, Cambodians knew nothing about it. Even not so many foreigners at that time knew about email.
Any memorable hiccups?
The first real crisis was around Christmas 1994 when all kinds of foreigners using the system here got their Christmas emails with pictures from their friends attached. The connection cost $5 per minute, so they got letters that cost $40 or $60.
When did you give up being the internet tsar?
In 1998. I wanted to give the administration of the country address to a Cambodian institution…. In many small developing countries computer departments in universities did it and at that time I had a relationship with the University of Phnom Penh. The minister of posts and communications said, “No, no, we want to do it.”
How did they run it?
I had done this service of setting up new addresses under the “.kh” domain name free of charge. After it was transferred, the ministry said they would continue the same procedures we had. We had first offered to train someone at the ministry in the technical procedures. They said, “No, no problem.” The only change is instead of having it free of charge, it costs now $200 (per year) for the first three years. I said it was not going to work – who will pay $200 just for that?
The Prime Minister makes from time to time very progressive speeches about ICT as part of the future of Cambodia. It is not reflected in the pricing policy of the national administrator of the country name. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have so many institutions in Cambodia not using the country (domain) name.
Why does Cambodia charge such high rates?
At the beginning, they said it was for covering costs of one person who sits at a desk and looks at each application. When they charged $200 for three years, applications more or less completely stopped and people said can we get a .com or .org (domain name) instead. And the procedure was complicated, even for a UN agency. There was bureaucracy built up around it, which … was for nothing other than having a source of income.
Was the issue of censorship ever raised?
When it was going already quite well and used by many, there was an article in the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong saying that Cambodia is going to start censorship of the internet.
Somebody asked Khieu Kanharith, who at that time was secretary of state (at the information ministry), about it and he wrote back and said as long as he was in charge there will be no censorship of the internet. He added that he was receiving insulting, critical letters by email – on the system I had installed in his computer! – but there is no point in technically blocking them out, that you have to argue with people and therefore there will be no censorship.
Why does Cambodian internet service lag so far behind what’s in Thailand and Vietnam?
It’s business policy, just like the country name costs exorbitantly more than in other countries. It’s not a technical restraint.
The first online connections started in 1997 were over satellite. Also around that time a fiber cable was laid from Thailand through not very far from Phnom Penh into Vietnam. Though it was possible to access it, it was not used…. To use the satellite brought more income to the ministry of posts and communications than to use the fiber optic cable.
The Cambodian government until now, with the high prices compared to neighboring countries, is obviously still thinking it benefits more from the fees than it would … if the fees go down and everyone could use these services.