Cellcard – Opening New Telecoms Frontiers

Cellcard is building a robust market in Cambodia, but it needs a vastly different approach to Western markets.

Perkins describes his experience of working in Nepal and the triumph of providing mobile services for climbers at the Mount Everest Basecamp. While the word “Basecamp” probably has you envisaging, quite reasonably, the very bottom of the mountain, it is actually at 5,300 metres altitude.

“There’s no electricity, no roads, everything has to be carried up by hand,” says Simon Perkins, CEO of Cellcard. “Horses and donkeys can climb up to 3,000 metres but then the air gets too thin for them, but people can climb up there, so everything goes up by hand and it is phenomenal seeing people carrying stuff up on their backs. It has to be totally self-supporting because you cannot send an engineer up there if something breaks down, half of the year it is totally inaccessible, even on foot. I love seeing how we adapt to those environments and how those lessons can be applied to other emerging markets.”

A Different Environment

Perkins’ career has seen him leading the growth of the mobile telecommunications industry in countries across Indochina, facing a wide range of challenges from geography to economics.

“I moved to Vietnam in 2000 and mobile services were in their infancy. It had a very closed economy, very communist, foreigners were treated with suspicion,” Perkins recalls. “There was only one ATM in the entire country, in Hanoi.”

Perkins’s contribution to the market was to introduce pre-paid phone credit, or “pay-as-you-go” as it is known in the UK.

“That really made the services take off because people don’t have bank accounts or credit cards,” Perkins explains “We introduced pre-paid phones so people could buy a top-up card and services really took off. That was the beginning of mobile adoption in Indochina. We had Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia, similar in their economic development and infrastructure, and it just really took off.”

95% of Cellcard’s customers in Cambodia are pre-paid, and for low-income customers this system lets them feel in control of their expenditure. It quickly proved to be a successful model, but a puzzling one to telecoms companies in Europe who are used to the contract model.

“A lot of people in Vietnam smoke but nobody will buy a pack of cigarettes,” Perkins says. “They will buy one cigarette when they want one because enough for one cigarette is all they have got in their pocket. They will buy one cigarette, not a box, one bottle of beer, not a pack of six, spend one dollar on their phone, not five. They earn money daily and then they eek that out. They can enjoy the delights of using a phone or smoking a cigarette but in a very different way to how we do it in the West. Once you understand that you understand how to serve that economy.”

These economies have progressed over the last twenty years, cars are now more common than bicycles, but that same frugal approach to expenditure applies.

Perkins has also operated elsewhere in the region, encountering different challenges. Before the coup, Perkins worked in Myanmar, where the economy was largely similar to the way it had been when the country gained independence. The country also faced an extreme lack of infrastructure.

“You could still see Ford Anglias and Morris Minors on the road. They got replaced with Toyotas, but they imported second-hand Toyota taxis from Singapore to sell off as personal cars,” Perkins says. “The challenge is infrastructure. Electricity is only available in 50% of locations and even if it is available, it will be hopelessly unreliable. You need lots of different business strategies for remote locations. It becomes a tyranny of logistics, to get generators running and keep services running. You have to really get down to the nuts and bolts of the practicalities. How many trucks do you have, is the site only accessible by motorbike? Do you need a boat when there is flooding? These are questions that would be impossible to comprehend in the UK other than during a crisis.”

Investing in Youth and Growing Esports Industry

While reinforcing traditional values, Cellcard also has a vital blueprint for a digital future and sees the nation’s potential in its youth.

Cellcard partnered with the global organisation Terre des Hommes Netherlands (TdH-NL) and launched the campaign “Protect the children, protect the future,” which aims to increase the children’s digital skills.

“The initiative aligned to Cellcard’s wider remit to help improve digital literacy,” Perkins admits. “It is part of Royal Group Chairman Neak Oknha Kith Meng’s vision for a fully digitised Cambodia.”

Cambodia has seen a rapid rise in demand for gaming and Esports among its youth audiences, who are also connecting with their peers in the broader Asian region through regional competitions and viewership of live-streamed matches.

PlayGame is Cambodia’s first, giving youth access to a full range of experiences, including online Esports tournaments offering cash prizes and in-game incentives in partnership with leading global game developers such as Tencent, Netease, and Moonton.

“Cellcard was Cambodia’s first telco to stage Esports tournaments in 2017 and has successfully built the gaming community to a sizeable mass. Our recent announcement to celebrate Khmer New Year, we launched Sankranta Cup Tournament – a Khmer New Year themed tournament in partnership with the Esports Federation of Cambodia,” Perkins says. “We committed to Khmer culture preservation by creating a range of innovating apps and tournaments to serve Cambodians.”

It is a fitting project for a company that calls itself “Proudly Khmer.”

“We are Cambodia’s most-awarded mobile network having achieved more than 30 industry awards for network excellence including an impressive six consecutive Ookla Speedtest awards and a number of category wins from Opensignal including Best Games Experience in February 2020,” says Perkins. “We have retained the title again this year based on an article released by a local publication, Khmer Times, which mentioned Cellcard offers the best multiplayer game experience by Opensignal.”

Proud Independence

Cellcard invests in projects like this because it is working to build something for the people in Cambodia.

“It has this Khmer culture just ingrained in it because it’s owned by a Khmer businessman and has been part of the fabric of Cambodia for 25 years,” Perkins says. “When we came it was just emerging from the Khmer Rouge period, which did not end long before this business started.  We appeal to the local population because we understand them. We speak the same language and speak to them.”

Indeed, Cellcard is not part of a large international group and does not have access to the shared learning and scale advantages of those companies.

“We have to be very self-reliant. If we want to find out about something we have to do it ourselves, develop our own team of experts,” explains Perkins. “You have to be prepared to train people in multiple disciplines. If we continue to stay independent, which I think we will, we need to build a multi-skilled workforce in house. The key will be the focus on the development of the team, which here is made up of locals.”

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