Gov’t-Approved Internet Phones Almost Ready

The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and a privately owned Cambodian company will soon release to the public a legal version of the inexpensive international telephone call service that was yanked from Inter­net cafes earlier this year, officials said Tuesday.

AZ Distribution Co Ltd’s version of Voice Over Internet Proto­col is currently being piloted at several local Internet cafes in Ph­nom Penh, AZ official Sar Vathana said.

It will be made widely available once the company has made some adjustments to the quality of the technology and negotiated the retail price of the service, although Sar Vathana did not know when that will be.

At Internet cafes currently testing the service, overseas phone calls cost about 800 to 1,000 riel per minute, compared with $1 per minute through the government’s international telephone gateway.

“We are testing the system before putting it out for service. If it is successful, we will invite all the Internet cafes to register to get a license from the ministry,” Mini­ster of Posts and Telecommu­n­i­cations So Khun said Tuesday.

The ministry and AZ, a company closely aligned with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP, signed a deal to share VOIP profits in May 2002, amid government concerns that the popular, unregulated phone calls offered at local Internet cafes were draining revenue from government coffers.

But, the agreement drew criticism from opposition party officials who said the government was receiving an usually small share of profits from a service that will compete with the gov­ern­ment’s international gateway.

In 2002, Sam Rainsy Party

lawmaker Son Chhay said that ministry officials told him the government would receive only 30 percent of the service’s revenue. Typical profit-sharing ventures between the government and private companies usually offer 51 percent to the state.

Sar Vathana said he could not disclose the percentage of profits that the ministry will receive from the service. He also said the VOIP would not compete with the two international-calling gateways owned by the government and MobiTel. Phone calls placed through those systems cost about $1 per minute.

“It’s a different system,” Sar Vathana said.

Internet cafe owners said they were eager to offer a legal version of the overseas calls, although many clandestinely offered the service during the government ban.

“People are able to find overseas call service at the back door of the Internet cafe” even though the service is technically outlawed, said Kim Chhay, who owns an Internet shop in Phnom Penh.

Even licensing the VOIP technology will not guarantee that the government will profit from all overseas calls, she said.

Several overseas companies offer pre-paid phone cards that allow calls to be made online for about 800 riel per minute, she said. Those cards were so popular among clients that she lost money on the illegal VOIP service that she offered during the ban, Kim Chhay said­.

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