A customer recently came to the Khmer Internet Development Services toting a small, exotic animal that looked like it didn’t belong in the city.
Bill Herod, longtime advisor to KIDS, was at a loss to identify the animal “in Khmer or English.” A group gathered and scratched their heads, trying to figure out the name of the strange animal.
Help came from an 11-year-old boy, who quietly went to his computer monitor, and started punching the keys: “Cambodia, wildlife.” Search. Within minutes, the group had discovered it was a loris, an endangered Cambodian mammal.
“So here was this 11-year-old kid showing me how to use the Internet,” Herod recalled. They reported the lost loris to the authorities who promptly picked it up and took it to a zoo.
Loris aside, such stories are becoming increasingly more common as information technology expands in Phnom Penh and the provinces. Along with its ability to identify endangered species, Internet know-how can provide jobs. The Internet, e-mail, e-commerce and text messaging are rapidly becoming a part of Cambodia’s intellectual landscape as more and more students become adept at handling information technology.
Three years ago, there were few Internet shops and the price of going online was five to six times higher than today. But competition has produced more shops and cheaper prices, and, as local youths report, more opportunities.
“I stopped writing letters to my friends a year ago,” said Sok Zanarith, the 21-year-old owner of New Web in Phnom Penh. “Now I talk to them every day by e-mail.”
Sok Zanarith is not alone. Students in Phnom Penh are becoming increasingly tapped into information technology. About 30 percent of his customers are Cambodian university students, and the number is growing, he said. Lower prices and a better command of English would help bring those numbers up, students say.
Hun Sopheaneath, 19, spends about 15 minutes per day on the Internet, doing research for his courses at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
“The Internet tells me about financial data, income and expenditures for some companies,” he said. It also provides him with learning material he can’t find in his classrooms. “It is the best place to research internal and international news,” he said.
The use of computers for research is not only available in Phnom Penh, but is increasingly becoming available in the provinces. Computer courses are given to children at the Future Light Orphanage outside Phnom Penh. Students learn word processing, Internet use and design as part of their training to become teachers in rural schools.
“We should not keep rural students far away from where the country is catching up,” said Ministry of Finance Undersecretary of State Ngy Tayi. “It’s not only the students in Phnom Penh who [should] have a chance to study computers, but remote area students also need it very much.”
Ngy Tayi recently donated 10 computers to a high school in Kratie province with the aim of linking the remote area to the high-tech world. He also said more English-language training and cheaper hookup costs would encourage more people to use computers. “I think the government should hold talks with the [Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications] and Internet and e-mail providers to reduce the price,” Ngy Tayi said.
The government is looking at ways that computers can be used in e-commerce. Prime Minister Hun Sen has said Cambodia will keep “fighting against computer illiteracy.”
Prices are dropping, and services are increasing. There are now roughly 50 Internet cafes in the Phnom Penh area. For visitors, the Cambodiana Hotel is installing the Internet in 120 rooms. As more students study English and computers, more job opportunities develop, especially in Web design and data entry, Herod said.
Digital Divide Data provides employment to more than 40 people in Phnom Penh and Battambang, who enter large amounts of data from companies here and abroad. The start-up company is currently limited only by the amount of computers it has, said company president Tim Keller. If the company had 40 computers, they could employ 80 people based on the work orders they currently receive.
Another demand that will increase in the future will be for Web site designers, Herod said. Although the public education system does not teach such courses, students are learning one way or another.
Kea Kunthea, manager of the now-loris-free KIDS, became interested in the Internet in 1997, and quickly learned how to use it to her advantage. “I was so worried about what my teacher was asking for,” she said. “Then, I found the topics on a Web site. Since then, I like to play with it.”
The 22-year-old woman now manages Web sites for the Mekong River Committee and other agencies. Her experience could well define those of other students who are just starting to peck at keyboards, click mice and surf the Web.
“I taught her how to use the Internet and e-mail,” Herod remembers of Kea Kunthea’s first experience at the center. “And three days later, she was designing Web pages. I couldn’t believe it.”