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Empowering civil society organizations with communications technology for civic education, networking and policy advocacy is a key part of USAID/Cambodia's Democracy and Governance strategy; yet, there are many specific challenges to its effective use in Cambodia. Often the actual technical limitations are a result of traditional market forces. Internet access in the country has typically required the availability of electricity which many lack; mobile network operators (MNOs) tend to provide the quickest and highest quality service to comparatively lucrative urban environments; and, utilizing all of the Internet's functionalities requires precious financial resources for both the devices and connectivity. Beyond this, many CSOs across the country have not been exposed to the various uses of technology for advancing their programs.
As a result, many CSOs are not able to recognize their potential role in the innovation process, and that such a process could involve collaboration with local private sector entities to advance development goals. Meanwhile, as media technology advances in the region, Cambodian society could further lag behind other countries that have greater diversity of information, leaving Cambodians with less exposure to a variety of information and less than ideal communications technology.
For several years now all across the world, entrepreneurial and socially responsible individuals motivated to improve the livelihoods of their fellow citizens have increasingly been advancing technology in directions ignored by telecommunications companies. Inspired by the success of their peers around the world, they take advantage of their knowledge of technology and the availability of open-source1 tools to create context-specific products and services for mobile phones and the Internet. As a part of the innovation process, these individuals use the power of social media to engage in dialogue, and create and exchange information on a people-to-people level--without the role of such arbiters of information as media institutions. This de-institutionalization of media and the disaggregation of technology empower individuals to create their own media content and share it widely through the Internet. This process is collectively referred to as the "democratization of technology." This term refers to the widening capacity of individuals and civil society to create new software and hardware platforms, and to share content via those platforms. This trend is beginning in Cambodia among the community of technologists and it is important because of the increasing use and awareness of communications technology.
Nevertheless, there are some challenges. For example, only 78% of Cambodians are literate, and the vast majority of mobile phones do not offer Khmer script, rendering SMS unusable for those who are unable to use English characters as an alternative. Civil society struggles with how to use technology to address corruption, human rights, civic education and policy advocacy. Combined with more typical challenges associated with low income and underdeveloped infrastructure, these factors have so far limited greater impactful use of the Internet and mobile phones for development programs.
Access to Information
The Internet access and usage figures in the country are extremely positive and are trending upwards. According to the recent assessment, "Internet usage has risen around 1,500% between 2007 and the end of 2011. By December 2011 the country had 755,000 Internet users, which represents 5% of the population." Around 25% of high schools, presumably in urban and peri-urban areas, currently have an Internet connection, even though 80% of the population lives in rural areas. The bulk of Cambodia's population is young and many are aware of the Internet, even if they admit to feeling intimidated by a general lack of knowledge.
In 2012, the 10th Mobile Network Operator (MNO) will commence operations in Cambodia, and will offer 4G connectivity from the start of its business in the country. According to the assessment, "most Cambodians have access to a mobile phone (93%), and around half own a phone. Companies charge between $.05-$.07 per minute for calls within their networks and $.07-$.10 for calls to subscribers of other companies. Data plans vary
USAID-Cambodia-RFA-442-12-000005 Social Innovation Lab - Kampuchea (SILK) between $.50 for 100MB of data per month to $36 per month for data and TV, and FM radio recording. One popular pre-paid data plan costs $5 per month for unlimited data."
These competitive prices are due to the fact that Cambodia has a relatively open regulatory environment governing the creation and operation of new media and the Internet. The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (MPTC) has licensed 37 Internet Service Providers (ISPs)--a license costs $25,000-and there are no limits on the number of ISPs that can operate. All ISPs, domestic Internet exchanges and MNOs are licensed according to International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recommendations. The government has indicated that it is eager to promote Internet access: The MPTC, for instance, says key targets for 2010-15 follow ASEAN's ICT lead: "Ensure Every Child has Broadband Access" and "Establish Broadband Network Framework", and says that partly involves encouraging competition by licensing numerous ISPs and MNOs. Nevertheless, when it comes to supplying the Internet to rural areas, the lack of electricity remains a significant
limiting factor in expanding the uptake of Internet usage.
It is Ministry of Education policy to promote the use of open source software, and high schools have mandatory courses using open source software such as that found in Open Office and in programming. Among the advantages of this localization are that people can access more information in their own language. It reduces software costs and promotes cooperation in the public interest.
Facebook is popular in Cambodia, and has drawn young Cambodians to the Internet. The Internet World Stats website indicates that 455,000 Cambodians had Facebook accounts as of December 2011, up from 14,000 users in August 2010. If correct, this would mean 3.1% of Cambodians have a Facebook account. Even though it is a dominant social media platform in Cambodia, it is currently used more for entertainment and socializing than accessing the news or political activity. Facebook and other internationally-hosted social media platforms like blogging (Blogger) and microblogging (Twitter) are uncensored and increasingly accessed via mobile phones. The platform is available via a wide variety of commercial providers, making it more difficult technically to block, and enables a digital space for users to share and organize.
In spite of increasing interest and use of the Internet and new communications tools, the potential functionalities of social media are not being realized, in part due to an immature market, but also due to the narrow priorities of a highly competitive mobile market. Imperfect and inefficient flows of information impede the impact of development assistance in the country. For example, while the development of Khmer Unicode went a long way to improving the experience for computer users, however, few mobile phones in use support Khmer.4 Most people cannot send or receive SMSs in their own language, which greatly reduces average citizen communications options.5 Until using the phone in Khmer is possible, most people will continue to use their mobile phones for little more than placing and receiving calls, and for listening to FM radio stations. The high price of Internet-ready phones and a low awareness of the variety of services phones can provide are barriers for
access to services.
There are 11 TV stations in Phnom Penh and six content-producing stations in the provinces, according to the Ministry of Information, and TV is largely considered a state enterprise. Cambodian Television Network (CTN), part of the conglomerate Royal Group, is the most popular broadcaster, capturing approximately half of the national market. With 53 radio stations in Phnom Penh and another 60 in the provinces, the radio sector is USAID-Cambodia-RFA-442-12-000005 Social Innovation Lab - Kampuchea (SILK) by comparison highly competitive. The diversity, zero cost to entry and easy availability of radio for the consumer means it is also popular.
In terms of traditional media, Cambodia was recently rated as "not free" by Freedom House, and was ranked 117 out of 179 on Reporters Without Border's 2011/2012 World Press Freedom Index, tied with Zimbabwe. Although there are no overt restrictions on subject matter, there are clear rules of the game that preclude many from reporting on sensitive issues particularly that could be perceived to threaten "national security." The country lacks a Freedom of Information law, and government and civil society sources indicate that a new Cyber law is in draft.
Despite a plethora of media outlets, civil society organizations believe the media inadequately covers their subject areas. While this is partly due to the norms of traditional mass media, the view also reveals an underappreciation of the quasi-journalistic role they could play in an environment where the mobile phone access is widespread and Internet access is increasing. The reach, low cost, and capabilities of modern communications technology and social media create opportunities for
CSOs to fill the information gap left by traditional mass media.
The recent assessment also highlighted that several CSOs outside of Phnom Penh were unaware of the potential applications of social media. But they did consistently identify the need for better intra-organization communications, more effective information distribution from the top down to the grassroots, quicker information collection from the regions to the capital, and more impactful advocacy efforts. Civil society organizations in Phnom Penh, however, demonstrated an interest in using technology for development and some had already begun to strategically use media technology to communicate their messages.
As the adoption and use of new technologies and social media increases over the next few years, this program will help to ensure that civil society actors are also able to make use of these new communications to utilize new media applications, in a safe and effective manner. More Cambodians will have more and better access to information that will allow them to make better-informed decisions about their lives and their societies.