Uy Mach sat in front of Baktouk High School Thursday, in the center of a cluster of uniformed students. Cellular phones brandished, they shouted out their orders for songs, games and videos and eagerly handed over their dollars as he downloaded files one by one onto their phones from his personal computer.
“I make quite a lot of money, just installing songs, music and pictures to young kids’ hand phones,” said Uy Mach, 21, a third-year student at the Cambodian Communication Institute.
Uy Mach is one of several dozen teenagers and young adults around Phnom Penh who have capitalized on the rising popularity of mobile phones among young people by starting their own phone customizing businesses.
There are 500,000 mobile phones in Cambodia, compared to 40,000 land telephone lines, said Koy Kim Sea, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.
After an initial investment of $700 to $1,000 for a personal computer with a USB reader/writer and software that links computers and telephones, entrepreneurs can earn more than $10 per day downloading songs, pictures, games and videos onto cellular phones.
This niche market also represents a surge in entrepreneurship among a new generation of young adults, said students and officials.
Uy Mach started his business a year after his family ran into financial difficulties. To earn money for his tuition, he started charging students $1 per song to download items from his computer.
He now earns $15 to $40 per day and services about 20 clients, “mostly teenagers who are crazy about the telephone,” he said. Now, he added, he can easily afford tuition.
Kong You, 32, a military police officer in Banteay Meanchey province, said he prefers downloading music into his mobile phone rather than carrying a radio or tape player for entertainment.
He spends a few dollars a day on new games or songs for his phone, and said he didn’t mind the extra expense. “Playing games and listening to songs on the mobile phone is fun for me,” he said.
The businesses are legal, and are a welcome opportunity for a generation of young Cambodians with technical skills, said Touch Heng, director general of the Telecommunications Ministry.
The December UN World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva concluded that 50 percent of the world’s population should have Internet access by 2015. Minister of Cabinet Sok An said recently that the government should lower taxes on imported computer equipment to build the country’s technology base.
Touch Heng said his 10-year-old son and
14-year-old daughter were already skilled in using e-mail and searching the Web.
All children could be as well-versed, he said, if their parents or society provides them with opportunities to do so. IT programs should be expanded to rural areas, in order to give opportunities to young people outside of Phnom Penh, he said.
“Such a biz makes quick money,” said Liv Pisey Roth, 21, a student at Norton University who runs a mobile phone business on the street in front of Baktouk High School. She invested $1,000 to launch the operation and now earns about $450 per month.
For her student customers, the novelty of cellular phones seems to outweigh their expense, she said. “I’ve noticed that most students in Phnom Penh are following the world technology revolution,” she said, meaning that students are quick to adapt their lifestyles to technology and products that interest them.
And entrepreneurs, from the streetside vendors to the major telecommunications companies, have been quick to adapt to the desires of young consumers. This week, Mobitel launched a new feature that will allow subscribers to replace the ring tone that callers hear when their number is dialed with the song of their choice. The South Korean technology has been introduced only in Singapore and Cambodia, he said.
The Telecommunications Ministry is working on Khmer-language software that will allow non-English speakers to use the phone more easily, Koy Kim Sea said.
Text messages sent from cellular phones have exploded in popularity, replacing more traditional methods as the preferred mode of communication for many young people.
“When I was young I wrote a letter on a piece of paper to my girlfriend, but the young people [today] are sending cell phone text messages to their lovers,” said Som Chaya, editor-in-chief of local news for CTN-TV.
The appeal of the text message is apparently not limited to teenagers.
On Tuesday, government officials gleefully recounted the messages they had received from well-wishers on the eve of the new year.
“I, personally, already have sent text messages out to about 200 people, and most replied with sweet words, short sentences that make nice surprises,” said Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen. He said he had received 400 messages from friends, relatives and colleagues wishing him a happy new year.
Not all were as enthused.
“Not all phone users like to have fun with short text messages. Only the young people want to do so,” Koy Kim Sea said. “I have not received any messages from anyone today.”