Hot competition in Cambodia's crowded mobile market as 10 operators chase subscribers

Cambodia has managed a remarkable transition in building a vibrant telecom market. Despite the country's status as one of the least developed nations in the world and whilst it remains one of the poorer countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia's efforts to expand and upgrade its telecom infrastructure have certainly been bearing fruit.

There was very little infrastructure remaining from before the tumultuous Khmer Rouge days. As a result, Cambodia bypassed rebuilding the fixed-line market and quickly launched into alternative technologies, jump-starting its telecommunications infrastructure with digital technology. Not surprisingly, mobile services have completely overwhelmed the market. By early 2010, there were ten mobile operators vigorously competing with each other in a market segment that was growing at a healthy rate. There were 5.6 million mobile subscribers (penetration 38%) in the country at the start of 2010. The market was still in a very strong expansion phase as evidenced by the keenness shown by foreign operators seeking to be part of it.

Some limited fixed-line growth had earlier come about through investment under foreign assistance, but this mainly benefitted Phnom Penh and geographical coverage has not increased significantly since that effort in the 1990s. The number of fixed-line services has remained relatively static at around 50,000, but by 2009 the numbers were starting to edge upwards. In the absence of any substantial fixed-line growth, mobile telephone services continue to completely dominate the overall telecom market in Cambodia. In fact mobiles represent more than 99% of the total number of telephone services in the country.

It is worth noting that wireless technology has been especially advantageous for Cambodia in achieving rapid network rollout and replacement of a fixed network badly damaged by 20 years of war. In addition to the thriving mobile networks, Wireless Local Loop (WLL) has been useful for rapid provision of a limited number of fixed-line services. However, while Cambodia has exemplified the fact that WLL offers a viable option for rapidly expanding telecom access in developing countries with low levels of fixed infrastructure, the potential of this technology has yet to be fully exploited in the country.

The expansion of Internet services has also been overshadowed by the mobile phenomenon. Internet take-up rates remained disturbingly low for many years, presenting one of the lowest penetrations in the region. Of course, the limited fixed-line infrastructure has been a major inhibiting factor in the roll-out of both dial-up and ADSL Internet services. The Internet market started to change in 2007 when wireless broadband services first began to appear in a serious manner. There has been a surge in the number of operators interested in this particular form of broadband and especially WiMAX. By early 2010 there had been a major upturn in Internet numbers on the back of the increased broadband penetration. Overall penetration remained low, however.

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