Cambodia: Networking in a world of contrasts

Published On 2011/02/15 | By Kurt Bales | On the Job

As some of my readers may know, I have spent the last week and a bit in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), setting up the new office for my company (eintellego). I had never been to Asia before this trip – outside of a couple of lay-overs in Japan in 2002 and 2003, or the 45 mins sitting on the plane in Bangkok Airport on the way to Abu Dhabi last November. I had no idea what to expect when stepping out of the airport.

I had no idea of the adventures that awaited me. I could tell the story of the motorbike rider attached to a medical drip riding down the road on the way from the airport. I could tell the story of the three legged dog standing next to a guy eating what appeared to be a “drumstick”. I could tell the story of being surprised by a Gibbon (Hack the Gibbon!) while walking to the office. I could tell the story of shooting AK-47s and M-16s at a Military base (Good prices!). Maybe somewhat more interestingly I could tell the story about the border war that started on the day I arrived here when the Thai Army “invaded” Cambodia over a disputed bit of land and a 1000 year old temple on the border of these two countries. And none of these even come close to the horrible abuses in translation on almost every menu I have seen since we got here, but alas this is a technical blog so I should focus on some of the things more interesting to my readers.

The thing I found immediately obvious to me as a westerner in Phnom Penh, was the contrasts in network design. Each street was lined with power poles with what at first sight looked like messes of spaghetti cabling. Upon closer inspection, and a week of reflection, there started to be some order to the chaos I was seeing.

At the same time back in Australia that we were debating VDSL implementation over existing copper telephone lines through to how/when/where/who of the national FTTH project (called the “National Broadband Network” (NBN) in Australia), the Cambodian government made a simple rule:

“$2 USD per block, per cable payable to the government for access”

An important point to make from the above – That is per cable! Whether 12-Core or 100-Core “$2 per block”. This simple rule made it affordable for the various Carriers and Telcos to deploy a FTTH project across the city of Phnom Penh and to provide end user services for $10/month (possibly cheaper but I didn’t look too hard).

Existing copper telephone networks were either non-existent or so poorly maintained as to be unusable for anything other than voice in many areas of the city, but at the price of deploying Fibre and Coax based solutions, this hardly seemed like too much of a problem.

Another thing I noticed – Almost every cafe and restaurant had some form of Free Wifi to customers. This was usually an Open Access point, or an encrypted SSID and the wait-staff would tell you the key (Note: Ask them to write it down for you! Saves a lot of time in mis-typing the key when you could be more productively uploading pictures of your food to Facebook and Twitter!). In Australia, those places that offer WiFi usually either had “50mb total in a 24 hour period” or charged a not-so-nominal price for access. I have to say, this aspect certainly made my me happy.

iPhone + Skype + Free_Wifi = @MrsJanitor + Happy

I would also like to take the time in the post to answer the most common question I received from both friends and collegues regarding this trip:

“Why are you opening an office in Cambodia?”

I guess there are several correct answers to this, but the truth is the amalgamation of several facts:

  • We knew of several businesses working over in Cambodia working to improve the quality of life for the people there
  • Through some of these contacts we have met many Cambodians who have amazing potential and just need the opportunities
  • Cambodia gave us a presence within Asia that was no more than 2 hours flight from over 10,000 potential customers.
  • There is an organisation called CIST who, in partnership with several large Corporations (including Cisco), go out to the provinces of Cambodia to find people with potential and train them in many aspects of IT including: Microsoft Technician Training, Linux Administration Skills, and Cisco Academy training to the CCNA level.

This last point alone has proven to be a really eye opening experience. When we advertised for our current positions (mostly HelpDesk and 1st level Network Ops), we received nearly 100 applications from people who had been through this training. We did two rounds of interviews – 1st round in December, and the 2nd round last week.

I wasn’t present for the first round of interviews, but the candidates we interviewed last week were great. I have them the usual network engineering and Linux admin questions I would ask any candidate back in Australia – no softball questions! They managed to answer each question beyond what I had expected and were able to discuss various protocol level concepts as well as configuration and management ideas to show to me that they actually understood what I was asking. All of this, while explaining it to me in something other than their native tongue! I had planed to bring on an additional staff member, but hired two more engineers after that round because I was so impressed.

All of this, and the fact that the Khmer people have such a great personality and sense of humour, so I felt like I was at my second home for much of my trip.

Yes, I understand that the above advantages could be said about many developing countries, but we had the opportunity and the ability to get on the ground in Cambodia. For more information regarding the how and why of Cambodia, Skeeve Stevens is working on a post on his new blog. Hopefully it will be published soon.

Im not sure if there will be many comments on this post, but feel free to send me any questions etc.

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About The Author

Kurt is a Network Engineer based out of Sydney Australia. He a the Senior Network Engineer at ICT Networks where he spends his time building Service Provider networks, and enterprise WAN environments. He holds his CCNP and JNCIE-ENT, and currently studying for his JNCIE-SP and CCIE R&S. Find out more about Kurt at http://network-janitor.net/ and you can follow him on Twitter.
  • Nice story. You said $10/month but what is the average revenue in Cambodia?

  • You make a good point – everything is in proportion. I was chatting about this today with a customer and some colleagues and the basic fact of the matter is that the carriers still need to buy their hardware, their runs of fibre, and the associated provisioning systems etc. And these prices are not too dissimilar to people in other parts of the world. They can make savings in the aspects of labor etc, but hardware still costs the same.

  • Don

    Inspiring stuff that we could do well to learn from!

  • Kurt you're a lucky guy, personally I find South East Asia to be a exciting place with some of the friendliest people around. From what I've heard, Cambodia is a lot more open to foreigners looking to set up business than other places like Thailand.

    Do you expect to have clients all across South East Asia? Do companies often consider working with businesses outside their own backyard?

    • As I mentioned in the intro, this was my first visit to Asia, and I really enjoyed my time there. Right now I am sitting in a hotel in Hong Kong, which is quite another view of Asian life. All of this has been an amazing experience.

      In regards to customers etc, our company consults to ISP and Content Providers etc, and with the growth of internet take up in areas of Asia and India, there is a lot of potential in this region. The new office gives us a base of operations to visit these different areas without the 8+ hours of flight just to get out of Australia.

      In the next 12 months, our focus will be on building the team over there to assist with supporting the Australian staff and customers. We will then start to reach out into the Asian markets and the new office will start to focus on the opportunities available there.

      Im not sure what other companies are doing, but because we are involved with APNIC and other internet governance groups, we get to know many people from the Asia Pacific reagion.

      This is a really exciting time for us 🙂