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
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
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,"
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
"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
"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
"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.
INTERNET CHARGES FOR CAMNET AND BIG POND
Permanent leased line
(not for resale)
64 Kbit/s To be announced later, (* plus $25 if you need help
(Standard - includes e-mail and a website), plus $200 deposit
(Casual), plus $200 deposit
Ranges from $1300-2400 per month, according to capacity. 32K leased line is $1300
per month, offering 15 megabytes in either direction each day, and $1 charge per
each additonal megabyte used. 64K for $2400, for 30 megabytes either way, and $1
extra for each additional megabyte.