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Cambodia: mobile-phone silliness

A Cambodian gambler talks on several mobile phones during a boxing
match at a television station in Phnom Penh, May 15, 2010. (Tang Chhin
Sothy/AFP/Getty Images
The sight of someone talking on two phones at the same time isn’t uncommon.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Lim Sivhuy owns four mobile phones and has
five different phone numbers but it’s nearly impossible to get her on
the line.

Meanwhile, an entire day can go by trying. Upon first attempt,
you’re told Lim’s number is busy. A different number you’re told
doesn’t exist. Later, when you try again with yet a different number,
you only get ringing. Then an automated voice encourages you to try
again — but you don’t.
In this small Southeast Asian country wedged between Thailand and
Vietnam, the experience calling 20-year-old Lim in western Cambodia’s
Pursat town is not in any way unusual.
Urban Cambodia is so over-saturated with mobiles and telephone
numbers that it’s often impossible to get anyone, anywhere on the line.
Rice farmers own two mobile phones for no apparent reason. Markets
teem with dozens of mobile phone shops all hawking the same ware.
There are way too many service providers. In 2006, Cambodia was
host to three mobile-phone service providers, but by the end of 2010,
there were nine — a shocking occurrence given that Cambodia has a
population of 15 million people and many countries with far more people
manage with fewer providers. Thailand, for instance, with a population
of 61 million, has four providers, and Vietnam’s 90 million citizens
are serviced by seven.
Recognizing that competition had become too crowded, two mobile
phone service providers — Smart Mobile and Star-Cell — announced a
merger in early January, a move that may spark additional
consolidations, some analysts contend.

“It’s one of the most competitive environments in the world,” said
Smart Mobile Chief Executive Officer Thomas Hundt. “To have eight cell
phone providers for a country of 15 million people, I don’t know of
another country where the ratio is like Cambodia’s.”

The spoils of competitive mobile-phone provider warfare have been
good to the kingdom. Deals abound as providers pivot for more
customers, and mobiles are always on the cheap, some going for only $5.

Between 2009 and 2010, the number of mobile-phone connections in
Cambodia more than doubled, leaping from 4.2 million telephone numbers
to 8.5 million, according to the Ministry of Post and
Telecommunications. Six years ago, when far fewer network providers did
business, there were only 690,000 numbers.

Things, as a result, have gotten a little silly. The sight of someone talking on two phones at the same time isn’t uncommon.
People pester business card designer Souk Srey Mom into cramming
all five or six of their telephone numbers onto a single card, despite
her admonishments that “it won’t be beautiful — a mess!”
Others vie for “lucky” telephone numbers, designated as such based
on complicated calculations or seemingly arbitrary distinctions. The
estimated price of the number “017999999”? Three grand.

“Yes, I have a lot of cell phones,” related Lim Sihvuy, remarkably
enough, over the phone. “This is so because it is very easy and very
convenient with so many phones and they are so modern and so beautiful.”

That’s just the thing, said a spokesman at the Ministry of Post and
Telecommunications, who asked to remain nameless. They’re easy. They’re
convenient. They’re modern. In a country rushing to develop, the mere
act of owning mobile phones says more about your stature than whether
you have money left over to actually pay for service. Thus a country of
inoperative telephone numbers and unreturned calls. Too many mobiles;
not enough money to use them. Countless numbers hang in ether.

Statistics are vague at best. No one knows the exact percentage of
Cambodians using mobile phones, though governmental estimates usually
hover around 50 percent. Yet, every available statistic and anecdote
suggests there will soon be more mobile-phone shops, more telephone
numbers, more confusion.

In rural Kampong Thom province, Lim Vuthy, a slight monk who smokes thin cigars, owns eight — count ’em — eight mobile phones.

On a recent Monday afternoon at his pagoda he reclined on wooden
furniture, his full arsenal before him. Virtually every mobile brand
and service provider present and accounted for.

Each telephone is absolutely necessary, he said, referring to
situations when he receives three urgent calls at the same time and
conducts the conversations simultaneously. Ah, the social
responsibilities of today’s monkhood.

“It’s difficult to talk on three cell phones at the same time,” Lim
began to explain, before he was interrupted by a phone call. Looking
abashed, Lim answered, telling the caller he couldn’t talk, and placed
the phone back among the collection.

“Having so many cell phones is complicated and it becomes more
complicated,” Lim continued and then paused for a moment. “I don’t know
if I’ll have more cell phones later. 

There’s nothing difficult about
having so many cell phones.”


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