My story: connecting Cambodia to the world after the Khmer Rouge regime
Posted on January 19, 2018
7 min read
In his 25 years at Telstra, our international head of network evolution, Andrew Hankins, has never backed down from a challenge. That includes relocating to Cambodia – as a graduate engineer – to help facilitate the nation’s first international calls after the fall of the Pol Pot regime.
I remember my first network job; perhaps more profoundly than most. It’s probably because it led me all the way from my home in Sydney to Phnom Penh less than 10 years after the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
The country was in a state of flux.
Before my time in Cambodia, I began my career as a junior graduate engineer at the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) in Sydney. I was 21 years old and had never left the country. At the time OTC (now Telstra) was charged with responsibility for all international connectivity into and out of Australia.
I worked in the satellite services team, testing and installing antennas and building small earth satellite stations. My first posting was at the Oxford Falls Cable Station in Sydney.
My time abroad with OTC started in an unlikely place – an AIDAB (now AusAID) aid project in Laos as part of an Australian government program in the late 80s. It opened my eyes to a different world; one where I was empowered to act and use my skills to make a real difference in places where it was needed.
Not long after this experience, OTC offered me the opportunity to join a four-month project to build a Satellite Earth Station in Cambodia. It was 1991 and the Vietnamese military had just withdrawn after a 10-year occupation. The newly-formed State of Cambodia faced the difficult task of maintaining stability amidst the potential guerrilla warfare.
The satellite station construction was the first project under a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) agreement with the Cambodian Ministry of Telecommunications. We were tasked with building and jointly operating the country’s international telecommunications infrastructure which would, after 10 years, be returned to the government. At that time, the only international links were a handful of circuits to Hanoi and Moscow and it was nearly impossible to make a simple phone call out of the country.
Cambodia looked very different 28 years ago. The only foreigners in Phnom Penh were from the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Children playing in the streets would often assume we were Russian. Each morning, I would ride my bicycle to work at the satellite station and local students would ride beside me and ask questions to practice their English.
Although it was illegal to learn English in Cambodia at the time, they would innocently ask questions like, “what is your function [job]?” or “do you still have a family?” It was grimly telling. In the absence of many western staples, simple items like cornflakes became a small reminder of home. The post-war conditions saw Cambodia largely disconnected from the rest of the world.
During the testing and commissioning phase of the satellite station installation, we would work under the moonlight from 10PM until dawn. This was the testing window allocated by Intelsat (a satellite services provider). During these hours, the streets were always eerily empty. There was a nationwide curfew in place and Cambodians were required to stay in their houses at night.
To get to the cable station we would pass through the maze of roadblocks scattered across the city. What would normally be a straightforward set-up was instead fraught with challenges. One of the largest was interfacing our equipment with the country’s outdated 1920’s French operator panel. Within weeks of establishing better service, international call traffic grew about 1000 per cent.
After travelling home to Australia for 12 months, I was quick to return to Cambodia – this time as Telstra’s Operations Manager. At just 23 years of age, I became responsible for a large part of the country’s telecommunications network.
We began training around 20 local Ministry staff to operate the facilities, most of whom had studied telecommunications or electronics in places like East Germany, Hungary or Russia. Local switchboard operators received lessons from a lively Australian woman, who had flown over to impart knowledge on long distance call etiquette and fair practice.
During this time, we worked to install the country’s first automated international exchange to replace the old French model. This exchange provided automated calls and billing. Sadly, the original exchange had been partially destroyed in a sweeping attack at the height of the Khmer Rouge regime. Incredibly, we later heard stories of how the local workers had returned to the scene and rewired the exchange from memory. It was an incredible demonstration of their resilience.
In March 1992, a United Nations peacekeeping operation arrived in Cambodia bringing with them around 22,000 military and civilian personnel. It was a de-escalation process that would provide the Kingdom’s first national elections.
To enable the elections, a tender was opened for the installation of a telecom system across the country. It was a contract that Telstra won. At the height of this project, we had 50 Telstra staff in Cambodia building out a telephone network – linking all the provincial cities back to Phnom Penh. Not long after the election, Telstra also set up Cambodia’s first mobile phone number program based on our approach in Australia.
Rapidly, Cambodia was becoming a much larger international gateway. The exchange buildings were quickly upgraded to near-international standards with purpose-built air-conditioning and generators. We built larger antennas – one pointing to the Pacific Ocean and the other to the Indian Ocean thereby establishing direct satellite links to Australia, Thailand, the United States and Japan. Business was booming and traffic was growing at about 1000 per cent per year.
In 1994 I returned to Australia once again – this time for four years, and with support from Telstra I gained an MBA. But, Cambodia continued to be a magnet. In 1999, I went back to Cambodia as Country Manager and this time ran three businesses: international telecommunications, internet services (BigPond Cambodia) and a payphone business.
After an incredible 10 years, it was time to transfer the infrastructure to the Ministry thereby concluding our BOT agreement. At an official ceremony, in the presence of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, we handed over the physical keys to the foundational infrastructure. It’s a moment that’s etched in my memory. Each of us were awarded medals of service for our work to facilitate some of the country’s first international commercial calls.
The years that followed were markedly different. I arrived in San Francisco for a six month posting that became six years. Here, we would set-up some of Telstra’s first dedicated network in the United States. I suppose I had carved myself a name for taking on new challenges. In 2006, I would come full circle and return to Asia, settling in Hong Kong. It’s where I still reside today.
Establishing some of Cambodia’s first international links is among my most rewarding career achievements. From a 21 year old graduate to my role today as Telstra’s Head of Network Evolution, it’s the time in-between that stands out the most.
I always make a point of telling people starting out in their career to grab the opportunities that come your way – don’t hesitate. Grab them whenever they arise, no matter how unexpected.
After all, my story is living proof that you never know where the road will take you.