Gov’t Stops Cheap, Illegal Phone Service

Internet cafes around town abruptly stopped offering cheap overseas phone calls a day after authorities confiscated equipment used to make illegal calls from 18 Internet cafes. And the government warned 100 others that they could be next.

“If they don’t stop the illegal overseas phone call business, they will meet a big problem,” said Cheim Sangva, deputy director of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications’ Inspection Department. “This business is killing our economy.”

Wednesday’s crackdown was the government’s latest in a crusade against phone-card smugglers and illegal phone gateway operators. The owners of the 18 raided cafes will not get their equipment back, Cheim Sangva said, but the government will not pursue criminal charges and will not fine the owners.

If they are caught again, he said, the consequences could include jail and fines.

The crackdown on cheap overseas calls reverberated throughout the city on Thursday. Most Internet cafes catering to tourists along the riverfront stopped

offering the calls—at least until the increased enforcement blows over.

“I’m scared,” said the owner of an Internet cafe located near the Foreign Correspondents’ Club who stopped offering overseas calls upon hearing of the government’s crackdown. “I don’t understand why this is illegal. We’ll have no service for overseas calls for a while.”

Other Internet cafe owners echoed his sentiments. They said the equipment that authorities have threatened to confiscate is worth between $3,000 and $5,000.

“I am scared they will confiscate everything and shut us down,” said one woman who operates a cafe on the same strip.

Internet cafes that offer cheap overseas calls use a system called Voice Operated Internet Protocol, which lowers the cost of calls to the US from the legal rate of $0.96 per minute to about $0.03 per minute. Though the government has declared VOIP gateways illegal, opposition lawmakers have argued that the policy simply hurts consumers while protecting Cambodia’s three licensed gateway operators—the ministry itself, Royal Telecam International and AZ Distribution.

Though there is no criminal statute that sets penalties for operating a VOIP gateway, a subdecree grants the ministry the sole right to license international VOIP gateways.

Giving more companies access to the cheaper VOIP technology through a transparent licensing process and lowering prohibitively high rates would let legitimate operators get the business now going to the black market, David Spriggs, general manager of Royal Telecam-owned MobiTel, said recently.

It remains to be seen whether this latest wave of enforcement will mean the end of cheap overseas calls, or if they will quietly return as they have done after crackdowns in the past.

Cheim Sangva was pleased with the reaction of Internet cafe owners on Thursday.

“When I drove around town today,” he said, “I saw that all the Internet cafes dropped the signs saying ‘overseas call service.’”

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