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Narrowing the digital divide

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Submarine cables are laid using special cable layer ships, such as the modern René Descartes, operated by Orange Marine. WIKI COMMONS

Narrowing the digital divide

It is no revelation that Cambodia lags behind some of its Asian peers when it comes to affordable and fast Internet access, and that a gap between consumption and infrastructure can lead to a loss of GDP growth.

Though issues remain in establishing the speed and capabilities of the Kingdom’s data network, the public and private sectors have worked to improve connectivity while reducing the price for end-users in a bid to meet the explosion in demand.

Fresh from announcing the construction of the country’s third submarine communications cable to be built by Cambodia Fiber Optic Cable Network (CFOCN) that will tap into the existing AAE-1 cable, one of the main high-speed data conduits linking Asian, African and European countries together, Cambodia’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunication (MPT) is focusing on narrowing the digital divide that separates the Kingdom from developed countries such as Singapore.

By tapping into regional and international data pipelines, Cambodia is aiming to improve its current bandwidth limitations that have caused a comparatively high price for megabytes per second (MBps). Currently, local internet service providers (ISPs) have to purchase Internet bandwidth from the ‘middlemen’ – which in this case primarily come from Vietnam, Thailand and Laos – before reaching the main Internet hub in Hong Kong and Japan.

According to a new report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the National Information Society Agency (NIA) of the Republic of Korea, which studied Asia-Pacific’s Information Superhighway in the ASEAN Sub-region, Cambodia is a relatively poor-ranking country when it comes to Internet bandwidth.

“The percentage of households with Internet access ranged from 86 per cent in Singapore to 5.1 per cent in Lao PDR and 2.2 per cent in Myanmar in 2014,” the report stated. Cambodia was ranked at 5.5 per cent as of 2014.

Since then, the penetration rate has jumped up to around 35 per cent, according to the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia (TRC).

Im Vutha, director of the Regulation and Dispute Unit at TRC, said the country’s bandwidth capacity is growing constantly - from 5 Gigabits per second (Gbps) in 2012 to 51.3 Gbps in 2015.

But Vutha acknowledged that more needs to be done to optimise Cambodia’s network.

“To have more direct Internet connectivity with cheaper price and higher reliability, it is compulsory to invest in submarine cable infrastructure,” he said.

“The only way to relieve bandwidth pressure is to reduce dependence of Internet bandwidth from neighbouring countries by establishing Cambodia’s direct Internet connection to the international submarine cable systems,” he added.

Cambodia’s third submarine communications cable is expected to cost $69 million and its installation will be completed at the end of 2017.

While the submarine cable will, in a nutshell, make it cheaper for data to arrive in Cambodia, the end consumer relies on mobile data infrastructure.

According to Thomas Hundt, CEO of Smart Axiata, Cambodia’s fast-growing appetite for mobile data might soon reach physical limitations, as available radio wave spectrums reach maximum capacity.

To increase Internet connectivity and bandwidth, all available spectrums should be used to carry data and voice to mobile phones, explained Hundt.

Currently, this isn’t the case as some license holders restrict data frequencies that would free up the ability for 4G LTE to take hold. “It is a wasted resource. We are very much eager to encourage the government to take action in this regard,” Hundt said, and added that the government should give “serious players and investors” the opportunity to exploit the possibilities of unused frequencies through investment in network infrastructure.

By Cambodian law, operators that acquire a license from the government have to invest and launch operations within one year.

“Several spectrums could generate government revenue but they aren’t because they are sitting idle,” said Hundt.

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