Cambodia Not Online: Why Cambodian Internet Access is So Dismal
Internet access is not a given in Cambodia. This is hard to fathom for those of us from new-media, online shopping, and iPad obsessed countries, but it is a reality of life here in Cambodia—and Cambodia’s lack of affordable and accessible Internet services is in my estimation, one of the primary obstacles Cambodia faces in its quest to become a developed and prosperous nation.
Cambodia’s Internet use statistics are depressing.
According to the eternally useful CIA World Factbook, only 0.5 percent of the 14,453,680 strong Cambodian population can be categorized as “regular” Internet users—and a “regular” Internet user can include anyone from an obsessive blogger to someone who comes to an Internet cafe once a month to use the mysterious online-telephone device. According to World Internet Stats.com, Cambodia is roughly on par with Niger when it comes to the percentage of regular Internet users in the general population—not particularly great company.
There is a good historical reason for Cambodia’s remarkable lack of integration with the Internet. You may have heard of the Khmer Rouge. During this era of total and violent upheaval, Cambodia’s nascent communications systems were entirely wiped out. Cambodia only began to re-build much of its infrastructure in the late 80′s and early 90′s, meaning that landlines are relatively nonexistent and mobile telephones are rife, as ten different mobile companies duke it out for supremacy in this tiny market. (Interestingly enough, according to the International Telecommunications Union, in 1993 Cambodia was the first country in the world where the number of mobile telephone subscribers passed fixed line subscribers.)
Cambodia got its first commercial Internet provider in 1997, which is relatively early by the standards of small and developing countries. During the early years, NGO workers were the primary beneficiaries of the service. It wasn’t cheap, either. In one infamous incident, a Cambodian based academic received an email from his friend, with an image attachment of the friend’s daughter. The cost of receiving the email with the image attachment ran to a cool 160 dollars. Although the nation did have Internet access by 1997, it remained expensive and limited geographically. Most users were foreigners or city dwellers with the means to afford it.
Further, it doesn’t help when your country-specific and difficult to parse script hasn’t been turned into Unicode. (In simplest terms, Unicode is the system that displays different characters online). In the early days of the Cambodian Internet, messages in Khmer had to be sent as attachments to other email messages, a laborious process. The Khmer Software Initiative finally released a Khmer Unicode in 2005, which is now in wide use. The Open Source Project is also working on open source software in Khmer—think office suites, browsers, and e-mail programs—in an attempt to free Cambodia from the shackles of overpriced English language Microsoft software programs.
Currently, the primary obstacle between your average Cambodian-on-the-street and the Internet is access and cost. Cambodia’s rural and still heavily agricultural reliant economy means that access to urban centers with Internet connections is low. Many people don’t even have electricity and running, potable water, much less a personal computer of their own.
Accessing and affording Internet services, even at a local Internet café, is unfeasible, expensive, and unlikely for a healthy percentage of Cambodia’s population.
Secondly, the Internet is shockingly expensive in Cambodia, as it has been since services were first introduced. In Cambodia, the ISP’s have decided to bypass the proletariat and focus almost exclusively on marketing to businesses with a lot of cash to throw around. A poor Internet connection—a sluggish 128 to 256 kilobytes per second—can cost between $20 to $80 dollars a month, depending on the ISP and the area.
Considering the minuscule salary of your average Cambodian, this puts in-home Internet access roughly on the same feasibility level of acquiring a Ferrari Enzo.
A recent survey conducted by Indochina Research found that 64% of Cambodian Internet users —living in fairly urbanized areas—cited expense as the reason for their lack of a home Internet connection.
Even wealthier users with “fast” connections, such as myself, must deal with download times that would test the resolve of any California native with a new media problem. I just performed a broadband speed test on my connection—I’m getting 200 kilobytes a second. I usually leave the room to do something else while my YouTube video, mp3, or PDF file downloads.
A lack of speedy access to funny cat videos may seem minor, but it means that even the most tech-savvy Cambodians are prevented from accessing the same content as quickly and easily as those in other countries, a problem that could prove insurmountable for online entrepreneurs, video artists, or other users that rely on high speed and inexpensive connections.
There are some Internet cafes in Cambodia—especially in the small number of areas with plenty of tourists—but they are by no means as common as they are in China, India, or in Thailand. This makes sense: The expense of buying a decent connection means that it’s not easy for a small town Cambodian entrepreneur to set up his or her own Internet café.
Like anywhere else in the world, young Cambodians use Internet cafes for playing online games and screwing around on Facebook. But some young people also use, or could potentially use, the cafes as a way to teach themselves marketable software and computing skills—I’m recalling the legions of Chinese and Indian teens I’ve seen in my travels elsewhere working on resumes, tutorials, or other projects from their neighborhood Internet access point. Cambodia needs to prioritize and encourage the spread of Internet cafes to provide Internet access to those who cannot afford a home connection.
There’s another worrisome aspect of Cambodia’s lack of Internet access. The Internet is unequivocally the single greatest tool modern day democracy has. People with Internet access can get messages out, communicate with others, and function as a citizen watchdog against the government—even if Internet access is controlled or monitored, as it is in places like China and Iran.
At the moment, Internet access is not or is minimally regulated in Cambodia, which is heartening when one considers China’s well-known “Great Firewall” and the internet censorship and control that occurs in Vietnam and Thailand.
But as Internet use in Cambodia becomes more popular and more pervasive, despite the cost—ISP subscriptions here jumped 100% in 2010—there are disturbing signs that a system of government control over access is in the works. For example, talk has been circulating for a couple of years about supposed government plans to construct a central state exchange point for all local ISP’s, controlled by the state owned telecom company, making it easy for authorities to control what people do or don’t see online.
Thus far, the government hasn’t actually created this exchange point, although progress seems to be being made.
As it stands, the banning of specific websites has been rare, spuriously done, and primarily directed at porn sites—and banning sites is a complicated process, as all of Cambodia’s numerous ISPs must be told to block the site by the government and then act in relative unison when executing the order.
But things could change at any time—and seem likely to, considering the increasingly repressive tack Cambodia’s government has taken in recent years. Just a few days ago, a shadowy order went out from the government to Cambodia’s major internet ISP’s to block the exceptionally ballsy, critical, and often-times lewd anti-government KIMedia blog—and every other site hosted on Blogger along with it.
Different ISP’s received the BlogSpot gag-order at different times, according to news sources and also according to word of mouth accounts from my friends. KiMedia but not other Blogger sites are currently blocked on my home ISP, Cogetel, though it took about a week for this to occur after I heard the first reports of the KiMedia blockage—the effort was obviously not a particularly well coordinated one. Using a proxy server is an easy way to get around the block, though not everyone would be expected to know this.
Government sources have either denied the existence of the gag order, claiming some sort of external technological hiccup, or have been cagy about it, though Ezcom at one point insisted that the Ministry of the Interior had called them and demanded that Cambodian ISP providers block “all of BlogSpot.”
The Phnom Penh Post reported that the Cambodian Minister of Post and Telecommunications, after denying any government ban of the blog, added that the government had a responsibility to “make sure that what is on the website is true.”
These are not the words of someone who “gets” free and unsuppressed online discourse.
As I write this, the banning of KiMedia continues, and there have still been no concrete answers regarding why or how the site was censored.
Cambodia is desperate to move past popular—and long-standing—perceptions of its status as a small island of backwardness wedged in between the richer and more powerful nations of Thailand and Vietnam. But the sad state of Cambodia’s online communications indicates that the same old story of Cambodia’s backwardness is being played out again.
The Cambodian authorities may reason that increased Internet access for the average person will inevitably result in a weakening of their own power. This may be true, but Cambodia won’t be able to develop itself and enter the international economy if its Internet services continue to be plagued by high cost, low availability, and the omnipresent threat of censorship. Cambodia can do better.
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