Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Wanna know why your phone doesn't work? Read on...

Wanna know why your phone doesn't work? Read on...

Wanna know why your phone doesn't work? Read on...

With six networks battling it out for customers, Phnom Penh's phone companies

are in the middle of a major ratings war. Sarah Stephens looks into the real

battle behind the glitzy ads.

Residents of Phnom Penh can have hardly failed to notice the ongoing advertising

and marketing war between Cambodia's major phone companies, which has been gathering

speed since the end of last year.

Newspapers, billboards, TV - all are saturated with messages from the phone companies,

each telling us they offer a more efficient service, wider coverage area, and cheaper


But beneath the savvy marketing ploys and flash advertisements lies a far grittier

world of inter-network rivalry, where companies struggle to keep up with demands

of their customers, and debt and mistrust all contribute directly to many of Phnom

Penh's infamous network problems.

Customers weary of pre-recorded messages telling them the "number you are dialing

is outside the coverage area" might be interested to hear that one of the main

reasons for the clogged up phone lines is due to disagreements between phone companies

over debts.

To understand why, it's necessary to look at how domestic phone calls are made in

Phnom Penh.

These calls are routed one of two ways. If a call is placed from one network to another

- say, Shinawatra to Mobitel - the message can be transmitted directly between the

two companies, via an 'interconnection agreement'. But if that route is full, the

call will go first to one of two exchanges at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications

(MPTC), and then out again to the second network.

But the interconnection agreements come at a price - company A must pay company B

whenever phonecalls are made between their networks.

And it's here that the equation has started to break down - some companies have stopped


Somchai Lertwisettheerakul, General Manager of Samart, knows only too well about

this problem.

He says that Shinawatra owes his company $80,000, a debt which has been steadily

mounting since November 1997.

All the money comes from unpaid interconnection fees, and, he says, he's fed up of

not getting his money.

"I've sent them three letters already, asking for payment," he said, adding

it was unfair to expect companies to continue footing the bill for those who defaulted

on payments.

Mana Pongsanarakul, Manager of Marketing and Sales for Shinawatra, did not deny that

his company owed $80,000 to Samart.

"Look, everybody owes everybody else money," he said. "Nobody's paying


He said that there was a viscous circle in action, resulting from customers not paying

their phone bills, especially those who rack up big international calls.

Other phone company employees agreed there was an atmosphere of mistrust between

the networks, and some noted that since the recent price increase in interconnection

fees (previously 4 cents a call; now 14 cents a call as of March 1) it was even less

likely that the companies would be paying each other.

The upshot of this breakdown in communications between the networks is that more

and more calls are routed through the MPTC - which at times, simply cannot cope with

the demand placed on its two exchanges.

It's then that customers get the dreaded pre-recorded message, or engaged tone -

which often comes randomly, whether or not the dialed number is actually engaged.

While refusing to name names, Ian Williams from Mobitel agreed that the non-payment

from some companies inevitably slowed down the traffic, and put an unnecessary burden

on MPTC.

"Let's just say that some companies are better than others at paying,"

he said.

He noted that it was also the phone networks' responsibility to make sure that they

provided enough lines through to MPTC.

Business analysts say that the circle of debt is an indicator that companies are

feeling that the competition is hotting up.

While the majority of the phone companies claim, on the surface, not to be poaching

competitors' customers, it's only a matter of time, the experts say, until one or

more of the companies folds under the fierce competition.

One service that has already pulled out of the market is Singapore-backed Phonelink,

Cambodia's paging service, the only one in the world to offer Khmer script.

The company went out of business at the end of last year, unable to stand up to competition

from cheap mobile phone providers.

"There are six cellular phone operators in Cambodia, compared to three in the

whole of Thailand," said Lertwisettheerakul. Considering the amount of phone

users in Thailand compared to Cambodia, it seems inevitable that eventually one of

the companies will go under.

Amongst those believed to be struggling to stay in the game are the older companies

Tricelcam and Camtel, both analog service providers, as opposed to the digital providers

like Mobitel.

Recent figures from MPTC point towards Tricelcam as a possible loser in the phone

race. At the end of 1998, the company had 3,580 subscribers, but by March 1999 they

were down to 2,987.

Despite the network's recent spate of adverts eagerly proclaiming their reliable

coverage in Phnom Penh, customers are switching from the old analog providers to

the more modern digital GSM providers, which generally offer a wider range of coverage

and services.

Camtel, another analog provider, was also mentioned by analysts in the 'those-most-likely-to-go-under'


"Those who can't offer the services will go down," said Pongsanarakul.

"The analog providers could compete if they upgraded their services - they have

to add lots of value into their system."

Williams agreed that times would be tough for the older companies if they did not


"It's actually not that expensive to run a phone company if you are not expanding,"

he said. "The expensive thing in telecommunications is investment. If they scale

back, maybe they can survive."

He noted that customers valued reliability of service above all else - and that Tricelcam

collapsed during the coup of 1997, with the result that even two months later, no

international calls could be placed through their network.

Not that Mobitel is blameless - it may have survived the coup unscathed, but suffered

a well-publicised crash last New Year's Eve, when the system went down and many customers

recieved nasty (or sometimes welcome) surprises on their phone-bills.

Privately, one telecoms analysts felt that certain companies will do well even though

they are 'not playing by the rules'. Shinawatra, he said, owed the MPTC $5million

in overseas costs, but that MPTC wasn't chasing them "for political reasons".

Shinawatra denied this, but the analyst said that at least two phone companies had

written letters of complaint to MPTC demanding that Shinawatra be made responsible

for their debts like other phone companies.

Yet in the midst of all thier marketing rivalries, the comapnies would do well to

remember that their harshest critics are the customers themselves.

And with such a large range of companies on offer, the customers simply won't settle

for an average service.

Despite all the advertised 'improvements' to services, one disgruntled mobile phone

client said "I think it's worse this year than ever before. Getting through

to mobile numbers from a landline is near to impossible."




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