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Regional Strategies > Articles > Cambodia Takes On Monumental Task Of Embracing Internet Age >

Cambodia Takes On Monumental Task Of Embracing Internet Age

by Madanmohan Rao

Phnom Penh; November 2001

She first learned how to use e-mail during her first year at university, in October 1997. Today, Kea Kunthea is manager of Khmer Internet Development Services (KIDS), a Web solutions firm and cybercafe in Phnom Penh.

"We started the company in 1998, and began developing Web sites for hotels. We now design Web sites in English and Khmer for organizations like the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, NGOs like Save the Children, and publishers like the Cambodia Daily newspaper," Kunthea proudly says.

KIDS also runs a 'cybergarden' with clusters of four PCs in small huts in a garden on Street 178, hosts classes on online journalism for communications students, and offers online translation services between English and Khmer for U.S clients.

Young "Netpreneurs" like Kunthea face an uphill task in securing Cambodia a firm footing in the Internet Age, but the momentum to get the country online is picking up steam.

With an infrastructure and countryside devastated by decades of civil war and U.S. military adventurism and a large segment of its intelligentsia executed by the brutal Pol Pot regime, this southeast Asian country of 13 million people faces monumental technological and human resource challenges in embracing the Digital Decade.

But the Internet has caught the attention of a wide range of players ranging from NGOs and academics to government officials and regional IT players for some years now.

An emerging network of cybercafes, expat and volunteer involvement in local NGOs, a growing number of government initiatives, and some recent conferences and exhibitions are raising the profile of the Internet as a valuable socio-economic development tool.

Cambodia now has four ISPs, about 30,000 Internet users, and thousands of Web sites hosted locally and abroad. After de-regulation in 2002, more ISPs are expected to join the fray, such as ThaiCom. VoIP services are illegal in Cambodia, but are nonetheless readily available at roadside Internet kiosks and via prepaid cards.

Even before realtime access to the Net was made available in 1997, store-and-forward systems like Unilink, Pactok, and the Open Forum for Cambodia were in operation.

The country's first ISP, CamNet (www.camnet.com.kh), was launched in 1997 via a partnership between the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPTC) and the International Development Research Center of Canada (IDRC). The second ISP was Big Pond (www.bigpond.com.kh), operated by Australian telco Telstra, with server farms located in Phnom Penh and in Siem Reap, and international connectivity via a 1.5 Mbps satellite link.

 

The third ISP is Everyday (www.everyday.com.kh), whose offerings include pre-paid cards for dialup users issued from the MobiTel Head Office and Caltex Star Marts.

One of the most promising access models for a country with poor landline infrastructure like Cambodia is offered by TeleSurf (www.telesurf.com.kh), the wireless ISP which is part of the Mobitel Group, a consortium formed by the local Royal Group and Sweden's Millicom.

It uses wireless modems and satellite dishes manufactured by BreezeCOM (now merged with Floware to form Alvarion, headquartered in Tel Aviv), a provider of solutions based on Point-to-Multipoint (PMP) and Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) technology. Alvarion has 200 distributors in more than 60 countries worldwide, and offers wireless solutions which are scalable, cost-effective and rapidly deployable.

(Alvarion has a presence in India as well via Gateway Systems, a broadband wireless access provider for Internet and wireless LAN services with nodes in Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and Delhi.)

TeleSurf has a presence in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, with another five cities to go online next year. Connectivity to the external Internet is via a ThaiCom satellite link to Hong Kong. TeleSurf offers leased line access of upto 256 Kbps, at rates well below those of some of its competitors; its payment-in-installments schemes for wireless modem purchases are also quite popular among its clients - who include most of Phnom Penh's cybercafes, several hotels, travel agencies, garment factories, and the local Tiger Brewery.

"We help test and maintain VPNs for local companies," says Stephen Gibberd, network optimization engineer at Telesurf.

"Wireless networking is very necessary for building the Internet infrastructure in a country like Cambodia," says Gibberd, an Australian citizen who previously helped UNDP set up Internet access facilities in East Timor.

MobiTel, in conjunction with Cambodian Web solutions firm Interquess, has developed a portal that allows users to send and receive email in Khmer; emails can also be sent to handset users.

The Internet is certainly seen as quite trendy by Cambodian youth, some of whom send emails to MTV to request popular songs. Mobile phone penetration is growing rapidly as well, including among youth.

Though PC ownership is still very low, a number of Internet cafés have sprung up in the cities (about two dozen in Phnom Penh), where Internet access costs around US$1 per hour. "But they need to offer more services beyond basic access - such as training and education for local citizen groups," according to Bill Herod, an expat who heads the Cambodia Information Project and was also one of the key founders of the ISP CamNet during his years with IDRC.

He writes an Internet column called 'WebWatch' for a local English newspaper. "But Internet coverage in the Khmer press is quite low," according to Herod.

Herod and Norbert Klein of the Open Forum for Cambodia run about twenty mailing lists focusing on local education, jobs, human rights, and gender issues.

On the content front, there are still some unresolved issues over the exact specifications for including the Khmer language in Unicode, but they are expected to be sorted out in 2002.

As for online media, TV stations like Cambodia TV, Apsara TV and Bayon TV have a basic Web presence. Most newspapers and magazines (especially the English publications) have a Web site, such as Cambodia Daily, PhnomPenhPost.com, PhnomPenhDaily.com, Indradevi and Kulthida.

 

Leading portals and online resources include Camweb.org, the Cambodia Information Centre (http://www.cambodia.org/), the CamNews e-mail distribution list (camnews-request@cambodia.org), Kampuchea.com, KhmerNet.com, Cambodia-Web.net, CambodiaJournal.com, Visit-mekong.com and AnkorCity.com. NGOs like the Cambodia Mine Action Centre and Cambodia Red Cross are online as well.

On the e-commerce front, a couple of community networking and local commerce initiatives have been launched by IDRC's Pan-Asia networking group based in Singapore.

 

Limited information and booking services for tourists are offered online by travel agencies like Apsara tours, PL Travel, and Eurasie Travel. "A huge failing here has been the lack of aggressive support for promoting tourism via the Net," according to Herod.

 

The fastest-growing industry in Cambodia is tourism -- especially to the stunning temples like the thousand-year old Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument and the largest Vishnu temple in the world. Other leading economic sectors are garments, rice milling, fishing, wood and wood products, rubber, cement, and gem mining.

 

Like some other developing countries, Cambodia too hopes to harness its low-cost workforce to tap into the global employment market of remote IT-enabled services.

 

For instance, one of the startups in the area of information digitization and transcription services is Digital Divide Data (www.DigitalDivideData.org), structured as a non-profit organization.

 

"This seemed to be a logical business for us to start due to low required computer and English skill levels," says the organization's president Tim Keller, who was previously with Credit Suisse First Boston's investment banking division and also helped establish English business schools in Estonia and Benin.

 

The Phnom Penh-based organization hopes to tap the large and growing market for remote information services in the U.S., and currently has a contract with Harvard University Library for digitization of pre-1900 archives of the student-published 'Crimson' newspaper, thanks to a generous alumni grant.

 

"Similar to 'light manufacturing,' which has virtually migrated offshore, we see a new era of 'light computation,' with the subsequent migration inevitable," according to Keller. Areas of proposed expansion include image indexing, medical transcription, and legal information services.

 

Digital Divide Data has 31 salaried employees currently working two shifts. "We help connect under-privileged Cambodians to the global economy. Even compared to other developing country competitors, we have significantly lower prices due to labor costs and volunteers," Keller says.

 

The U.S.-based founders of Digital Divide Data also roped in an Indian company called Cyberdata - based in New Delhi - to train Cambodian managers in the data entry business and provide technical support and software infrastructure for digital data entry.  Email and file exchanges via ftp help coordinate operations and workflow between the U.S., India and Cambodia.

 

This example of Indo-Cambodian business cooperation on the IT front has also drawn the attention of the Indian ambassador to Cambodia, P.K. Kapur. "This is the right time for Indian IT companies to venture into Cambodia - especially those companies that already have a presence in nearby Thailand," according to Kapur, who identifies e-banking and IT training as promising opportunity areas.

 

Proficiency in Internet skills in Cambodia is yet to pick up significantly at the academic level; the Royal University graduates about a dozen students a year with a computer science background, and there are a few vocational training institutes. Companies like Cisco are contemplating the launch of Internet education programs in Cambodia. Unlike many Western countries where educational institutes offer students their first exposure to the Internet, Cambodia - like many developing countries - has poor Internet access in its universities.

 

The Cambodian diaspora are active on Usenet newsgroups like soc.culture.cambodia as well as several Cambodian-American sites, but have yet to play a significant and active role in the domestic Cambodian Internet economy.

 

Cooperation between government, academic, private and NGO sectors to grow the domestic Internet economy is limited, but increasing; more capital investments are needed to nurture local startups.

The government is thankfully becoming more supportive of the Internet, and some IT champions are emerging among high-ranking officials. Basic Web sites have been launched by many government agencies and ministries as well.

"We are now formulating a national IT policy," says Leewood Phu, secretary general of the National Information and Communications Technology Development Authority.

"We are recommending government and industry support for low-cost IT textbooks in English. Lots of favourable changes for the domestic IT industry have taken place in the last year, and more steps will be taken in areas like e-government," according to Ramesh Chandran, a UNDP operations representative in Phnom Penh who has served in financial advisory roles in India, East Timor, Nepal and Congo.

At the high-profile National IT Awareness Seminar held in Phnom Penh early in September 2001, prime minister Samdech Hun Sen outlined key elements instrumental in developing Cambodia's IT Vision: development of telecom infrastructure, expanded use of the Internet, standardisation of Khmer code for wider computer use, computer literacy at the university and school level, increased proficiency in English as a second language, private sector participation in IT development and skills transfer, sound government support for FDI, and prevention of computer crime.

Sponsors of the conference included APDIP (which is identifying ways for Cambodia to 'leapfrog' layers of IT infrastructure development and also tackle the digital divide), and UNESCO (which advocates the use of existing infrastructure, including public libraries, archives and documentation centres, to serve as gateways to the Net).

 

In sum, as Cambodia enters a period of relative political and economic stability, the Internet can play a useful role as both an instrument for socio-economic development as well as a conduit for remote information services. With proper planning and investments, the task may perhaps not be as monumental as it seems.

 

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The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com

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