Cambodian Mobile Operators Race to Expand 4G Coverage

Cambodia’s three major mobile phone companies are locked in a race to become the first to cover the entire country with high-speed 4G mobile broadband internet.

Cellcard is expected to reach the finish line first, with CEO Ian Watson claiming it will roll out 4G services throughout the nation by April, allowing—in theory—for even the most remote regions to be plugged into the network.

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A teenage girl looks at a mobile phone as her father steers a boat on the Tonle Sap lake in Siem Reap province. (Emilio Labrador/Creative Commons)

“Whether you’re a businessman, a tuk-tuk driver or a rice farmer, you should be able to access the fastest mobile data,” Mr. Watson said.

Although the Cambodian- owned company has invested about $150 million in the project, Mr. Watson has pledged not to increase Cellcard’s plan prices in order to recoup the investment.

Mobile internet subscriptions, or add-on data plans, reached nearly 7.5 million in November, and offer opportunities for growth in an industry that has seen cellphone subscriptions drop by more than 1 million since 2015, according to Im Vutha, a spokesman for the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia. He said mobile phone subscriptions numbered about 19.5 million in Cambodia as of November.

Mobile service providers previously focused on cell coverage in Cambodia’s major cities. But as the urban market becomes increasingly saturated, companies have begun to look toward underserved regions, said Mike Hopewell, research manager for Phnom Penh marketing company Market Strategy & Development.

“Obviously the rural population of Cambodia is still a large majority, but we are seeing urbanization, and at the same time we’re seeing rural demand and ability to spend increase,” Mr. Hopewell said.

Mobile expansion in Cambodia has been helped by international companies’ early attempts at 4G coverage, allowing Cambodia’s major providers to move at a rapid pace, he added. Cellcard has partnered with Chinese telecom giant Huawei and, most recently, Nokia of Hong Kong, to use their technologies to stretch 4G across the country.

“We’ve invested a lot of money into the necessary infrastructure,” said Mr. Watson, the CEO. “We have decided to be the pre-emptive enabler for Cambodia to access mobile data.”

Last week, regulators questioned Cellcard over concerns of predatory pricing after the network announced Osja Xchange, a promotion that offers $100 worth of calls and data for just $1.

Mr. Watson said yesterday that the company was in compliance with all of the country’s legal and regulatory requirements ,and discussions with regulators “will not disrupt our rollout.”

Cambodia’s other two major mobile operators, Smart and Metfone, are hot on Cellcard’s heels, and are investing large sums of their own to expand their 3G and 4G offerings.

Smart CEO Thomas Hundt said the company had already rolled out 4G coverage to areas in all 25 provinces, and was funneling the service through 65 percent of its 2,100 or so base stations across the country.

Owned by Malaysia-based Axiata Group Berhad, Smart will invest an estimated $80 million into expanding its 4G coverage to 80 percent of its bases by the end of this year, Mr. Hundt said.

Metfone, meanwhile, aims to cover “almost all” of Cambodia with 3G and 4G coverage, with a goal of having 3,000 base stations to support both versions of mobile broadband, said Helene Veal, head of the Vietnamese company’s public relations, in an email.

Metfone wants to expand through Cambodia’s more mountainous and rural regions, including those without electricity, but would need support from the government via tax incentives, Ms. Veal said.

The company did not specify how much they intended to invest in 3G and 4G coverage or when it intends to reach its coverage goals.

Mobile data users in remote regions currently must connect to the internet via companies from countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong, said Mr. Vutha, the regulator spokesman.

“Most operators don’t want to build up more sites in the underserved [areas] which they don’t see as economically viable,” he said. “This is causing [a] digital gap [in] access to telecom services between those who live in the rural and populated areas.”

The final completion of a $70 million undersea cable shared with Malaysia and Thailand, expected to be completed next month, will help bring high-speed internet to rural regions, Mr. Vutha said.

As the top mobile operators attempt to expand coverage, they are also competing to offer new mobile services that separate their mobile and data plans from the rest of the pack.

Lining up to join the sprint for the Cambodian market this year is telecommunication provider TelecoTech, a subsidiary of Ezecom, which will sell other internet-based services, such as voice over internet protocol, Mr. Vutha said.

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