On the heels of last week’s announcement that the government plans to privatize the national telephone services, the Japanese government agreed Wednesday to lend the government $28.8 million to build a fiber-optic cable from Kompong Cham province to Sihanoukville.
The government also said Wednesday that it is investigating mobile phone operator MobiTel to determine whether it has exceeded the 1 million subscribers mark that it is bound to by law.
Expected to boost telecommunications in rural areas, the loan for the cable is subject to the government reforming the telephone sector. Last week, Telecommunications Minister So Khun announced the formation of Telecom Cambodia, a partially-state-owned private enterprise that will soon take control of land-line and international-gateway services currently handled by the ministry.
Japanese Ambassador Takahashi Fumiaki said in an interview Wednesday that reform was needed to separate the ministry from the provision of services.
“[Separation] is common in many countries to avoid conflict of interest,” he said.
The ambassador said that industries and rural residents along the fiber-optic line will benefit by gaining access to land lines and the Internet for the first time.
So Khun said Wednesday that the new 394-km fiber-optic cable will be linked to an existing cable that runs from the Thai border in Poipet to the Vietnamese border at Svay Rieng province.
Outside the signing ceremony, So Khun said that Prime Minister Hun Sen has personally complained about the difficulties of calling between mobile phones and land lines. In response, the ministry is trying to determine whether the country’s leading mobile telephone company, MobiTel, is overloading the telephone network.
“We are studying whether MobiTel’s customers are over 1 million already,” So Khun said, adding that the company’s addition of a seventh digit may be the source of the problem.
MobiTel General Manager David Spriggs said MobiTel does not yet have 1 million customers.
“The exact figure is around 650,000,” he said on Wednesday.
“The addition of an extra number does not mean we have surpassed a million. With six digits there are 1 million numbers and 200,000 are reserved for technical reasons, leaving 800,000. We applied and the ministry agreed for seven digits because that will give us 10 million numbers which gives us room to grow,” he said.
“The problem is not a technical problem on our part,” he said, blaming other companies for being slow in adapting their technology to MobiTel’s seven-digits system.
“There is no technological reason why they cannot do this. We have asked the ministry to enforce the law and have the companies comply. It is not up to us, it is up to the ministry,” Spriggs said.
So Khun’s announcement that the government does not know how many subscribers MobiTel possesses conflicts with his comments last week when he said there were are a total of 698,410 mobile phone users throughout Cambodia.