15 June 2005

Internet in Cambodia


Even as the debate over free municipal broadband is going on in the US, Internet access in Cambodia continues to be very expensive, and thus limited to a fortunate few.

The 128 K connection I'm using at the moment, for instance, costs $70/month, plus $75 for 1GB of transfers; anything over that is charged at $1.20/10MB. I'm going to use about 1.5GB this month, so the total bill will be $205, or about as much as my rent, utilities, and housekeeper combined. There are unlimited data transfer plans available, but they start at $400/month.

This is in contrast to nearby Bangkok, where even at hotel prices I can get a connection that's 8 times as fast, with unlimited transfers, for $75/month.

It's hard to see this changing anytime soon. The kleptocracy here certainly doesn't consider it a priority, and lowering prices would make it harder for the minister in charge to afford his villa, so unless the World Bank or some other big donor forces the change it won't happen.

The Khmers stay in touch using SMS. For you Americans, this is short messages, sent over cell phones, and it's very popular in the non-US world. These are very cheap and fall somewhere between text chat and e-mail in immediacy.

What I wonder is, why not build an information system based on SMS? The classic example of how information could help the developing world is a farmer who needs to decide which of two cities to sell his produce in. It seems it would be easy enough to set up a system where a farmer (or, more likely, the village chief) would send an SMS with a request in it, and get market quotes in return. The providers of the information could make a small amount on each SMS. Much of the text-based information on the web could be accessed this way — if you can get to it using Lynx, you should be able to get to it via SMS.

This project would require a Khmer version of the cell phone software, agreements with the cell phone providers, and a little software & hardware infrastructure. Google? Want to advance from "do no evil" to "do some good"?