VN Military-Owned Company Gives SIM Cards to Cambodians

Vietnam’s military-owned mobile phone service provider Viettel is looking to corner the market for Cambodia’s armed forces and students by giving them 1 million free SIM cards, officials said Tuesday.

The promotion from the newest entrant into the Cambodian mobile phone market is catching on, Defense Minister Tea Banh said Tuesday, with many police, military and military police now using the 097 prefix.

Allowing a foreign military to control the phone calls made by members of Cambodia’s armed forces will not compromise security but actually strengthen communication, Tea Banh said by telephone.

“If [phone services] increased, it would make it much easier for communicating,” he said.

Viettel sales representatives said Tuesday by telephone that all armed forces members, high schoolers and university students can receive free SIM cards with $8 worth of free call credit included. And another $2 of free credit will be added to the SIM every month for the next year.

Viettel normally charges be­tween $2 and $50 for a SIM subscriber identity module-card de­pending on the number of minutes stored on the card.

While student cards only work within the Viettel network, SIM cards issued to the military can call other networks as well, said a Viet­tel sales representative who de­clined to provide his name.

The distribution of around 1 million free SIM cards to all 24 prov­inces began in December, several representatives said.

Bui Phuong Thao, a legal executive in Viettel’s Cambodia administrative department, confirmed that Viettel is actively giving out free SIM cards to students and soldiers, though she said she was not authorized to provide more details.

Owned and operated by the Viet­namese military, Viettel is one of Vietnam’s leading mobile phone service providers with about 25 million subscribers and $471 million in profits in 2008, double that of 2007, Reuters reported Jan 13.

Viettel entered Cambodia in 2006 but only began offering mo­bile phone services in late 2008. Already, Viettel has 100,000 subscribers in Cambodia, Dow Jones reported last week.

All mobile phone service pro­viders keep detailed records of subscribers’ calls, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications So Khun said by telephone Tuesday, although it is illegal to listen to or record conversations, and therefore Viettel’s promotion does not compromise national security.

“Wiretapping is illegal, it is prohibited,” So Khun added.

In any case, all confidential military matters are handled through a private communications network, said RCAF Military Region 5 Commander Major General Bun Seng.

An estimated 40 percent of all soldiers in RCAF Region 5 have re­ceived and used the free SIM cards, Bun Seng said, and 10 generals have received the free SIM cards with unlimited calling credit.

“Yes, I also got a free SIM card [with unlimited calls], and the service network is good,” he said by telephone Tuesday from Battam­bang province.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth denied that any of his officers have signed up for the free SIM cards, though Mondolkiri province deputy police chief Sam Samath said about 700 police in his province are taking advantage of the promotion.

“They have provided free SIM cards for the past two weeks,” Sam Samath said by telephone Tuesday.

Royal Group CEO Kith Meng, who heads Cambodia’s largest cell phone operator MobiTel, said by phone Tuesday he was unaware of Viettel’s promotion.

StarCell Chief Operating Officer Adam Cabot said that he was well aware of Viettel’s flashy entrance into the mobile phone sector.

“Promotions by new operators will affect all existing operators,” he said.

For now, however, Cabot said StarCell is not taking reactionary measures to Viettel’s promotion, as it will take time to collect data on Viettel’s impact on other players in the market.

“Effects will be felt in the short term…. In the long term, let’s see,” he said.

Veteran Asia-based journalist and security analyst Bertil Lintner said it was “hard to say” whether Cambodia is compromising security by allowing soldiers to take part in the Viettel promotion but that there is room for concern.

“It depends on how technologically savvy the Vietnamese military is, but I assume they must be pretty advanced. And a million SIM cards? That must be for the Cambodian military/police and all their relatives/friends? There is every reason to be apprehensive about this generous gesture,” Lintner said by e-mail Wednesday.



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