TWENTY-FIVE percent of the world’s population is connected to the Internet, according to a September 2009 report from Internetworldstats.com, a 5 percent jump from the 2007 estimate of 20 percent worldwide Internet penetration.
With Internet users accounting for just 0.5 percent of Cambodia’s population, the Kingdom is tied with Niger as the 186th on the global list of most-connected countries, placing it only slightly ahead of fellow ASEAN member Myanmar (0.2 percent) at the bottom of the list and well below super-connected Iceland at the top with 92 percent.
Internetworldstats.com, whose rankings are based on data from Nielsen Online, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the market research company GfK group, defines Internet users as persons over the age of 2 who have gone online within the past 30 days.
Despite the fact that 42.6 percent of the global Internet users are in Asia, the world’s most populous continent has only the fifth-highest Internet saturation, with 19.4 percent of the population online, as compared with the most-connected continent North America, where 74.2 percent of the population is online, and Africa, the least connected, where 6.8 percent of people are Internet users
The past decade has seen global Internet penetration climb 400 percent to 1.73 billion users last year and counting, but while the rise of Internet usage in neighbouring countries such as Thailand (24.4 percent penetration in 2009) and Vietnam (24.8 percent) have run parallel with global trends, Cambodia remains one of the most disconnected countries in the world.
Since 2000, when 6,000 Internet users accounted for 0.05 percent of the population in the Kingdom, Internet penetration has risen 10 times, according to Internetworldstats.com, meaning that today, one in every 200 Cambodians is using the Internet on a regular basis. Mike Gaertner, who has been working with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Cambodia for the past 15 years and is currently the chief operating officer of CISD, a web content company, says that this estimate is too conservative, suggesting there are more like 200,000 users, about 1.3 percent of the population, many of whom access the Internet at businesses and Internet cafés concentrated in Phnom Penh.
Besides the fact that there are only 3.6 computers per 1,000 people in Cambodia, according to 2008 statistics released in the ITU’s report “ICT Eye”, industry experts agree that the relative stasis in Internet use is due to the inability of government and private actors to bring down the price of online access in the Kingdom.
In a survey conducted by Indochina Research, released in December 2009, 64 percent of the 1,100 Internet users surveyed said that expense was the main rationale for not connecting to the Internet at home.
Figures released by the World Bank in 2009 put the average cost for a 256-kilobytes-per-second Internet service in Cambodia at US$89, 130 percent of monthly per capita GDP. By comparison, the average price of a 256-kpbs Internet plan in Vietnam is $17 a month and $45 a month in Bangladesh, a country that is 10 places below Cambodia in the UN’s human development index.
Explanations for why Cambodia’s Internet costs remain so high are varied, with industry insiders citing missed opportunities to connect to international gateways, poor planning and government indifference at stalled expansion.
Gaertner credits a lack of foresight from the country’s Internet Service Providers for the painfully slow ascension of connectivity in Cambodia.
“Even though there are 26 ISPs – 20 of which are operational – most of them have focused on high-end consumers in offices,” explained Gaertner.
Despite the fact that there is a growing demand for the Internet, Gaertner says that “the equipment and networks are aimed at providing high quality Internet for businesses, so it will be difficult to bring down the price for individual consumers”, adding that Vietnamese Telecom company Viettel’s entrance into the market in 2007 represented the first time an ISP targeted home users.
Vietnam’s Military Telecom Corporation, or Viettel, which operates in Cambodia under the name Metfone, recently passed Mekongnet as first among ISPs in terms of subscribers. The firm has quickly established a near-monopoly on providing broadband access to homes around the Kingdom, accounting for over 88 percent of the total optical cable in the country, according to a February 26 report from the Investment & Trade Promotion Centre of Ho Chi Minh City. The report also said that Viettel is striving to make $250 million in profit in 2010 and capture 90 percent of the broadband Internet market by 2011.
In an interview with the Post in October 2009, Viettel’s Managing Director Nguyen Duy Tho defended the high price of his company’s services by explaining that the entrance of Metfone in Cambodia resulted in a 40-percent drop in broadband costs, which he promised would continue to fall.
At the beginning of 2009 there were 8,400 broadband connections in the Kingdom, where ISPs must connect to the Internet through Thailand – which has almost one million broadband subscribers, and Vietnam – where there are over two and a half million broadband connections.
Due to what industry insiders called a “disastrous” missed opportunity, Cambodia never connected to the Asia America Gateway (AAG), a $500 million 20,000 kilometre fiber-optic cable that runs under the Pacific Ocean connecting seven Southeast Asian countries with access to faster, cheaper and more reliable broadband access from the United States.
In December 2009, Cambodian broadband Internet provider Telcotech announced that they had connected to the AAG, but for undisclosed reasons the service was never delivered.
Norbert Klein, who is editor of online review Cambodian news site The Mirror, and also the man widely credited for introducing email to the Kingdom, agrees that the private sector has failed on many counts, but places much of the blame on the government for their inaction in stimulating infrastructure development.
“The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications has always treated the Internet like a profitable product, rather than realising that it is a social service and providing it at cost or even subsidising it,” he explained, pointing to the efforts made by Vietnam’s government as an example of the potential power of the public sector.
AFP reported in February 2006 that the Vietnamese government injected $6.3 billion into the Internet sector with the hope of raising the penetration rate form 12 percent to 35 percent by 2010. Last year, Cambodia’s neighbour was about 10 percent away from this target figure.
There will be 650 million broadband users around the world by 2013, forecasts international research firm Parks Associates.
According to the World Bank, the average cost of an Internet connection in developing countries is 20 percent of average monthly income. In Cambodia the average cost of Broadband is over 200 percent per capita GDP, according to 2009 World Bank reports.
Until Cambodia can find a way to make Internet affordable, the majority of its population will remain offline, effectively isolated from the rest of the world and the global opportunities and conversations that are happening online. And that means lost business opportunities too.