In a frustrating paradox, Cambodia’s expanding mobile phone market is resulting in fewer calls getting through. Susan Postlewaite looks into what lies behind the Kingdom’s interconnection woes, and finds a little-used government switchboard.
Cambodian cellphone users are very familiar with the long silence of a failed phone call, with many people carrying two or even three phones to get around the problem of connecting with users of other networks.
Network busy. Connection error. These terse messages blinking away on the display screens of mobile handsets across the country have become an infuriating reminder of how increasingly hard it is to communicate between mobile phone networks here.
The long silence of a failed phone call is well-known among mobile phone users in Cambodia, where during certain hours of the day it can take a dozen tries to get one call to connect.
The so-called interconnectivity issue is becoming worse it seems, and experts say mobile phone companies are largely to blame by not routing calls through the government’s switchboard at state-run Telecom Cambodia.
The recently upgraded system is capable of handling 36,000 calls at any given time.
But even during peak hours, less than a third of the board’s total capacity is in use, government officials say, because phone companies refuse to pay for space on the Telecom Cambodia system.
Under current regulations, it is also up to phone companies whether to accept calls from other providers, giving them greater control over their networks.
“Of course phone companies don’t use the government switchboard because it costs them money,” says a Phnom Penh phone vendor who did not want to be named.
The result, some smaller mobile service providers claim, is an inability to connect their calls to Cambodia’s largest phone company, MobiTel, which operates the 012, 092 and 017 number pre-fixes and has signed roughly 60 percent of Cambodia’s 2.5 million mobile subscribers.
“It’s impossible to call from other mobile operators like 011, 015 or 013 to 012 in the peak hours,” says Shekar Rollakanti, an IT professor at Norton University in Phnom Penh.
“But it’s easy to make a call from 012 to other numbers,” Rollakanti adds, echoing widespread suggestions that MobiTel has unfairly cornered the market by forcing phone users onto its system.
If the government required phone companies to use the Telecom Cambodia board, “it would mean income generation to the country and the problem can be solved. If we have third party control, the mobile companies would not have the right to reject calls,” says Rollakanti.
“This is the problem we are facing. Customers are suffering,” he adds.
MobiTel came in for a lashing late March at a meeting of mobile service providers that was organized by the telecommunications ministry in response to complaints that a high volume of calls to the sector leader had been failing.
But despite the gathering, no solutions were found other than to ask the companies to upgrade their capacity – something that some providers say could go a long way towards reducing the number of calls that do not connect.
“In general, interconnect is a challenge in Cambodia,” says Morten Eriksen, CEO of Cadcomms, the 013 operator which runs qb, the newest player on Cambodia’s increasingly competitive mobile communications market.
While Eriksen says Cadcomms has had “limited problems” connecting to other networks, he acknowledges that cross-network coverage could be suffering due to limited capacity among all operators.
Others agree, saying a lack of regulation in the sector has led to a glut of users without the infrastructure to support them.
“You have so many users on a network and there are so many other networks, so you need certain amount of capacity of interconnectivity relay systems. If you don’t have enough, you get stuck,” says Norbert Klein, who has lived in Cambodia since 1990 and helped pioneer the country’s communications systems.
But the Phnom Penh phone vendor says that in their race to attract customers, service providers are ignoring their capacity needs.
“They don’t care,” he says, adding that many of his customers are forced to carry two or three phones, each with a different service provider.
“They just want more money without considering how all of these new customers are going to affect their service,” he says.
Cambodia has built a healthy mobile phone market, reaching the 2.5 million-subscriber mark, or 17 percent penetration, in early 2008. Industry experts expect the market to continue growing at an annual rate of around 50 percent into 2008.
While MobiTel, which provides the 012, 092 and 017 telephone numbers, continues to dominate the market, the sector’s newcomers are expected to make gains as more Cambodians subscribe to mobile services.
MobiTel: 1.5 million
Camshin (011): 500,000 subscribers
International (015, 016): 300,000 subscribers
Applifone (098): 20,000 subscribers
Cadcomms (013): launched in March, unknown number of subscribers
VietTel: Expected to begin services in June