Internet Phone Calls a Booming, but Unregulated, Business

By Ham Samnang

the cambodia daily

Every day, dozens of people make overseas calls from Inter­net cafes in Phnom Penh—and those people are breaking the law, the government says.

There are around 40 Internet cafes in the city that provide “voice-over Internet protocol,” or VOIP, and they are in violation of a 1997 law, according to the Ministry of Post and Telecom­munications, which has pledged to crackdown on the shops.

Only about 20 Internet cafes in Phnom Penh have operating licenses from the government. But neither these, nor any of the other countless cafes that have opened, are allowed to offer Internet phone calls.

As Internet technology advan­ces, it becomes increasingly difficult to regulate, said Heng Sokvises, who works in the network office at Camnet, an Inter­net service provider that operates under the MPTC.

“We will take preventive measures to shut down all gateways and their businesses,” said another MPTC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said the MPTC was working on a law that would put a government VOIP system into place. There are two international phone call gateways; one is operated by MPTC and the other is run by telecommunications company MobiTel.

But Internet cafe owners argue that the illegal way is simply the affordable way. Calling overseas via the Internet generally costs between $8 and $10 an hour. Using overseas phone cards costs $1.10 to $1.50 a minute.

“We use a Web site which buys a domain from Microsoft,” said Som Darong, manager of River Cafe. “It is the cheap way which our people, most of them whom are poor, can afford.”

He said he averages 40 customers a day for email, Internet, and overseas phone calls.

Taking the government’s side in the fight against unlicensed overseas phone call providers are mobile phone operators, who are losing money to cafes. “The Internet cafes are violating the law,” said Kit Meng, chairman of MobiTel, which also sells overseas phone cards.

Chan Sevin, a monk at Wat Unalom, said he uses Internet call services to keep in touch with friends in Australia because the price “is affordable.” He spends $2 for a 15 minute call.

“If I used the [calling] card it will cost me above a dollar a minute,” Chan Sevin said.

The manager of Popular Web, who asked that his name not be used, said he buys a $50 phone card from net2phone, a US phone card company, to provide VOIP service at the store. “It is cheaper than calling from the US.”

“We need a free market,” he said. “If the government is wise, it should make the system available and sell phone cards for the service.”

The store, which has been open for a year, has been operating in ignorance, he said. “The government did not publicly announce the law,” he said. “There is no clear information about it.” He only heard about the law from friends, he said.

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