PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Lim Sivhuy owns four mobile phones and has five different phone numbers but it’s nearly impossible to get her on the line.
Meanwhile, an entire day can go by trying. Upon first attempt, you’re told Lim’s number is busy. A different number you’re told doesn’t exist. Later, when you try again with yet a different number, you only get ringing. Then an automated voice encourages you to try again — but you don’t.
In this small Southeast Asian country wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, the experience calling 20-year-old Lim in western Cambodia's Pursat town is not in any way unusual.
Urban Cambodia is so over-saturated with mobiles and telephone numbers that it’s often impossible to get anyone, anywhere on the line.
Rice farmers own two mobile phones for no apparent reason. Markets teem with dozens of mobile phone shops all hawking the same ware.
There are way too many service providers. In 2006, Cambodia was host to three mobile-phone service providers, but by the end of 2010, there were nine — a shocking occurrence given that Cambodia has a population of 15 million people and many countries with far more people manage with fewer providers. Thailand, for instance, with a population of 61 million, has four providers, and Vietnam's 90 million citizens are serviced by seven.
Recognizing that competition had become too crowded, two mobile phone service providers — Smart Mobile and Star-Cell — announced a merger in early January, a move that may spark additional consolidations, some analysts contend.
“It’s one of the most competitive environments in the world,” said Smart Mobile Chief Executive Officer Thomas Hundt. “To have eight cell phone providers for a country of 15 million people, I don’t know of another country where the ratio is like Cambodia’s.”
The spoils of competitive mobile-phone provider warfare have been good to the kingdom. Deals abound as providers pivot for more customers, and mobiles are always on the cheap, some going for only $5.
Between 2009 and 2010, the number of mobile-phone connections in Cambodia more than doubled, leaping from 4.2 million telephone numbers to 8.5 million, according to the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. Six years ago, when far fewer network providers did business, there were only 690,000 numbers.
Things, as a result, have gotten a little silly. The sight of someone talking on two phones at the same time isn’t uncommon.
People pester business card designer Souk Srey Mom into cramming all five or six of their telephone numbers onto a single card, despite her admonishments that “it won’t be beautiful — a mess!”
Others vie for “lucky” telephone numbers, designated as such based on complicated calculations or seemingly arbitrary distinctions. The estimated price of the number “017999999”? Three grand.
“Yes, I have a lot of cell phones,” related Lim Sihvuy, remarkably enough, over the phone. “This is so because it is very easy and very convenient with so many phones and they are so modern and so beautiful.”
That’s just the thing, said a spokesman at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, who asked to remain nameless. They’re easy. They’re convenient. They’re modern. In a country rushing to develop, the mere act of owning mobile phones says more about your stature than whether you have money left over to actually pay for service. Thus a country of inoperative telephone numbers and unreturned calls. Too many mobiles; not enough money to use them. Countless numbers hang in ether.
Statistics are vague at best. No one knows the exact percentage of Cambodians using mobile phones, though governmental estimates usually hover around 50 percent. Yet, every available statistic and anecdote suggests there will soon be more mobile-phone shops, more telephone numbers, more confusion.
In rural Kampong Thom province, Lim Vuthy, a slight monk who smokes thin cigars, owns eight — count 'em — eight mobile phones.
On a recent Monday afternoon at his pagoda he reclined on wooden furniture, his full arsenal before him. Virtually every mobile brand and service provider present and accounted for.
Each telephone is absolutely necessary, he said, referring to situations when he receives three urgent calls at the same time and conducts the conversations simultaneously. Ah, the social responsibilities of today’s monkhood.
“It’s difficult to talk on three cell phones at the same time,” Lim began to explain, before he was interrupted by a phone call. Looking abashed, Lim answered, telling the caller he couldn’t talk, and placed the phone back among the collection.
“Having so many cell phones is complicated and it becomes more complicated,” Lim continued and then paused for a moment. “I don’t know if I’ll have more cell phones later. There’s nothing difficult about having so many cell phones.”