Thailand: Busy signal

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The telecommunications industry in Thailand is set for a busy year, with new 3G licences expected to be auctioned during the third quarter of 2012. At the same time, the sector’s regulator is working on a master plan that it plans to release in April.

At the end of 2011, industry regulator the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) announced that it had approved a draft version of its 2012-16 telecoms master plan. Among its key objectives are the twin goals of ensuring that at least 95% of the population has voice services by the end of the five-year term and that there is a minimum of 85% coverage for data services.

While the NBTC’s board has approved the draft plan, it is still subject to change, with the commission intending to call for public comments in the coming months, before launching the final version in April.

Importantly, the draft master plan also sets out a timetable for one of the most anticipated events in the sector’s history – the auctioning of licences to use bands on the 2.1GHz spectrum to provide 3G services. This auction was originally scheduled for September 2010, but it was cancelled at the last minute due to a court injunction on behalf of one of the two state-owned telecoms companies. The NBTC now intends to conduct the auction during the third quarter of this year.

In the meantime, the regulator has established a 16-member sub-committee that will be charged with setting out the conditions for the auction. The group will include representatives of the NBTC, academics and industry experts.

Many analysts expect the 3G licence auction to be a milestone for Thailand’s telecommunications sector, opening up the industry to greater competition and expanding services. Currently, state-owned firms hold sway in the sector, granting concessions to private mobile operators. Under the new system, operators will obtain their licences directly from the NBTC.

“High-speed technology, i.e. 3G or 4G, will enable new solutions, such as mobile advertisements, machine-to-machine or mobile banking, apart from traditional internet browsing,” Wichian Mektrakarn, the CEO of Advanced Info Service, the country’s largest mobile operator, told OBG. “It will be a channel for Thai consumers to access internet because of limited fixed-line infrastructure in Thailand. After acquiring a 2.1GHz licence, we expect mobile players to invest in a full-scale 3G network to capture growth in mobile data.”

In addition to auctioning the 3G licences, the NBTC is also in the process of opening up the 2.3 GHz and 1800 MHz bands to be used for 4G services. In December the NBTC approved an application by authorised service provider Advanced Info Service and state-owned telecommunications company TOT to offer Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology 4G services on a trial basis, which will be provided on TOT’s 2.3 GHz spectrum. Other mobile service providers, including CAT Telecom, Total Access Communication, TrueMove and Digital Phone Company, are expected to apply for permits to conduct trials of 4G services.

The NBTC is a relatively young organisation, having been established only in December 2010. It replaced the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) as the industry’s regulatory body, the new agency having a wider remit and greater powers to set standards and monitor compliance with rules governing the sector. Indeed, in the short time that it has been in existence, the NBTC has moved quickly, finalising draft spectrum management, radio and television broadcasting and the universal service obligation master plans, as well as the laying the groundwork for the 3G licence auctions.

However, difficulties for the commission remain, including the possibility of legal challenges to its authority to act as the telecommunications regulator and its right to conduct an auction of 3G spectrum licences. During 2011 a number of court cases challenged the composition of the commission’s board and some of the laws enacted to establish the NBTC.

While further legal action could be taken to block the planned 3G licence auction, Settapong Malisuwan, NBTC’s commissioner and chairman of the agency’s telecom committee, told local English-language daily The Nation on December 22 that the NBTC was confident that the commission had full regulatory power to grant the spectrum licences.

All of the changes in the sector planned by the NBTC will make 2012 a busy year for service providers, which will have to gear up to bid for new frequencies and look to upgrade their own infrastructure. Just as importantly, service providers will have to adjust to a new operating environment, one that is more open and subject to a greater degree of competition.

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