Digital infrastructure in Thailand is improving

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With the introduction of nationwide 4G services following the late 2015 spectrum auctions, the IT sector in Thailand received a significant boost. Improved connectivity is increasing usage and helping the development of electronic products and services. In particular, an e-commerce boom is gaining steam (see analysis). More local app development is also possible, as is the creation of domestic social networking platforms and payment systems.

At the same time, businesses and government are starting to see the value of new technology and are making moves so far delayed. They are adapting to clouds and putting resources behind their efforts to utilise some of the more advanced offerings. However, the country is being held back by reluctance to give up control on the part of corporations, and the desire to control information, although decisive moves are being made that will likely lead to critical mass in the sector. “Right now, we are starting to change quite a lot in terms of the understanding and utilisation of technology, such as the cloud, and software-as-a-service and platforms-as-a-service,” Jirapun Daengdej, dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at Assumption University, told OBG. “The private sector is quite active. From the government’s point of view, they see that this trend is coming, and they are starting to have a lot of projects but we are still at the learning stage.”

Number 74

While Thailand is a major market for high-tech devices and social media platforms, its technological development is not particularly deep. It was ranked 74th in the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU’s) 2015 “ICT Development Index”, ahead of China, Mongolia and South Africa, but behind Brunei, Turkey and Malaysia. Thailand’s ranking is up from 92 in 2010, and expectations are that its ranking will continue to improve. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), the sector’s regulator, believes that the country will reach 60th place by 2017, based largely on the widespread introduction of 4G in 2016. It also sees the number of 4G users at 20m by the end of 2016. There is some precedent, however, as Thailand leapt about 10 points in the ITU survey with the introduction of 3G in 2012.

The market has been developing fast, especially in terms of transition to mobile internet. According to StatsCounter, handheld device use overtook desktop use in May 2015, although the two remain roughly equal. By March 2016 desktop use was at 53.1%, while mobile use was at 46.9% of the total. Smartphone adoption in Thailand is high and rising, with eMarketer putting the number of units in use at 20m in 2016, and forecasting that number increasing to 24.8m by 2019. In terms of market penetration, Thailand is at 42.8% while the region is at 43.6% – Singapore is at 86.3% and India at 29.8%.

Connectivity so far has been mixed, and it is clear that until the major rollout of 4G and the improvement of international links, the country will remain behind the leaders in Asia. In 2015 Thailand was ranked as having the eighth-fastest broadband in the region and the 52nd-fastest globally. The average speed over a 30-day trial was 19.9 Mbps, while Singapore was at 121.7 Mbps and Cambodia was at 9 Mbps. Thailand’s rates are also inconsistent and somewhat counter-intuitive. In Bangkok the average speed was 17.1 Mbps, while faster rates were found in smaller locations, such as Mukdahan, near Laos, where the average speed was 32.19 Mbps, and Sattahip, near Pattaya, where it was 31.3 Mbps.

Masterplans

The government is working to help the technology sector develop and has been providing this sort of support for some time. An ICT Policy Framework ran from 2002-10, alongside the ICT Master Plan (2002-06), the ICT Master Plan Extended (2007-08) and the 2nd ICT Master Plan (2008-13). It was followed by the ICT Policy Framework 2020 (2011-20), which runs alongside the 3rd ICT Master Plan, and the National Digital Economy Policy and Plan (2016-20).

The ICT Policy Framework 2020 involves a number of development strategies and goals, which include universal broadband, a competent ICT workforce, a competitive ICT industry, digital government, ICT to make the country more competitive, ICT to improve society and ICT for the environment. In terms of the national broadband policy, the precise targets laid out are 80% of the population connected by 2015 and 95% by 2020, with cities and major centres linked with 100 Mbps-minimum connections by 2020. Sub-district schools should be connected by 2015 and all schools by 2020.

Encouraging Development

In recent years and under the new government national efforts have taken on a sense of urgency, while political will has been building to achieve real world results. The minister of information and communication technology, Uttama Savanayana, said in late 2015 that Thailand should be a “digital hub” within three years, and that the government should support Thai companies involved in technology and encourage international companies, such as Google and Facebook, to establish servers within Thailand. The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) has 24 projects planned in the effort to create the Digital Thailand programme. The total value of these projects is BT3.76bn ($113.2m) and the list includes the upgrading of 2280 community ICT learning centres, the building of 10,000 public digital access spots throughout the country, assisting smaller companies with e-commerce, the use of ICT to improve public services and the development of Phuket as a smart city, The Nation reports. Other efforts include a CAT Telecom innovation park, the electronic trading of rice and sugar and a Thai Post logistics site. CAT and Telecom of Thailand (TOT) might cooperate on some projects, such as the upgrading of submarine cables.

According to the Committee on Preparations for Digital Economy and Society, Digital Thailand will be rolled out over 20 years in four phases. The plan is to use ICT in tourism, to develop digital health records and to make training available to the elderly and underprivileged. The hope is to undertake significant economic reforms so that the country can best utilise its digital assets. It is believed that the programme will help overall development and prepare Thailand for the competition that will come with the integration of the ASEAN Economic Community.

The government has discussed setting up a national infrastructure fund to build out a network, which will be owned by the MICT. The fund will also be used to raise money for ICT infrastructure. Similar plans, however, have been floated in the past and they have not been successfully implemented. In 2014 the government said it would be creating a national internet backbone holding company to own all the country’s fibre and tower assets. But this project never got off the ground as the private sector has been working to create its own fibre and tower infrastructure companies.

In the background, the region has been creating its own blueprint for the sector. The ASEAN ICT Masterplan 2016-20 includes: the harmonisation of ICT standards; the promotion of digital trade; the development of standards for sustainable and green development; addressing the digital divide; developing next generation universal service obligation (USO) standards; developing best practices for telecentres and smart cities; developing guidelines for big data; assisting start-ups; cooperating to repair submarine cables; the creation of a cloud computing model; human resources training; encouraging investment in regional ICT; lowering data roaming charges; encouraging the development of new media in the region; improving information security; and encouraging wellness.

USO Funds

The Thai USO Fund was set up in 2005 with the purpose of guaranteeing that all people in the country have access to telecommunications. Companies with telecoms licences are required to pay 3.5% of their earnings into the fund. As of early 2016 the USO Fund’s assets totalled BT20bn ($602m). Its activities have included the distribution of free phone cards, the building of USO telecentres, the creation of talking libraries for the blind and the installation of a fibre-optic network to increase broadband coverage in the country. Only about BT2bn ($60.2m) has been spent so far, while the Ministry of Finance has borrowed BT9bn ($270.9m) from the USO Fund.

In early 2016 the government said that it would spend BT18bn ($541.8m) from the USO Fund, as well as BT38bn ($1.1bn) from the 4G auctions to fund the expansion of broadband with a minimum speed of 30 Mbps to 70,000 villages. The project will be coordinated by the MICT and the NBTC, while the last mile connection work will be handled by CAT and TOT. An estimated 27,000 villages already have broadband, but it is hoped that their service will be improved as a result of the project. Uttama said that the goal was to complete the expansion within 12 months using both fixed and wireless broadband.

Submarine Cables

Submarine cables need to be constructed so that the country can handle increased internet traffic to become a regional digital hub. The government, however, has been pushing for a single international internet gateway, and this has drawn complaints from the public and industry experts. The contention is that the single chokepoint prioritises national security and control over economic development. Limiting traffic in such a way would take the sector back a decade, it is argued. Thailand currently has 10 international gateways in operation and a total of seven submarine cables. That compares with 20 cables in Singapore and 12 in Malaysia. The government argues that the single international gateway has a number of advantages, including the ability to negotiate better terms for international bandwidth, and adds that the plan will help in the development of the digital economy. Currently, China, Singapore and Taiwan maintain single international internet gateways.

According to a paper published by the NBTC, the market for international connectivity in Thailand is highly competitive, with no single telecoms company controlling a significant amount of the market. The largest is CAT Telecom, with 21% of the traffic, followed by Super Broadband Network – an AIS company – at 14%, True International Gateway at 13%, and Jastel and TOT, both at 10%.

In early 2015 Telekom Malaysia signed a deal with Thailand’s Symphony Communication and Cambodia’s Telcotech to construct a cable from Malaysia through Thailand to Cambodia. The project is set to be completed by the end of 2016. Another cable is being constructed linking Singapore with Myanmar, via Thailand. The Myanmar-Malaysia-Thailand International Connection project will run roughly 1600 km and be completed by the first quarter of 2017.

Data Centres

While Thailand has developed data centres locally, they are not on the scale of those in Asian technology hubs, such as Singapore and Hong Kong. As interest develops in the use of software-as-a-service, infrastructure-as-a-service, platforms-as-a-service and data recovery, companies are sometimes opting for large international players with data centres elsewhere.

Amazon Web Services (AWS), a global operator which has had a site in Singapore since 2010, reports significant interest from a wide range of customers in Thailand. Its client list includes companies such as Sinoze, Stamp and Computerlogy, according to the Bangkok Post. It also counts as a client True Internet Data Centre (True IDC), which uses AWS as a back-end for cloud offerings.

Data centres have been the target of significant investments lately. In December 2015 the Board of Investment approved BT10.15bn ($305.5m) of capital being committed to infrastructure of this sort. This includes BT3bn ($90.3m) for TCC Technology and BT1.5bn ($45.2m) for Digital Port Asia, a Thai company majority-owned by NTT Communications.

In early 2015 Las Vegas-based Switch said that it would be building the country’s largest data centre in cooperation with Kasikorn Bank and Siam Commercial Bank. The venture, known as SuperNap, will also have Crown Property Bureau subsidiary CPB Equity as a partner, as well as True IDC. Some partners will act as anchor tenants, while the company may also bring business from its US clients. It is expected that the centre, which will be the first Uptime Institute-rated Tier IV centre in the region, will have 6000 racks and be operational in 2017.

Construction began in early 2016 and the estimated cost of the project is BT11bn ($331.1m). The centre is being built at Hemmaraj Industrial Estate in Chonburi province, only 27 km from a submarine cable landing station. As the site is more than 100 metres above water, it is safe from flooding. “This is the first time we had a huge investment in a data centre,” Thanachart Numnonda, president of the Association of Thai ICT Industry, told OBG. “In the past, the data centres were only small ones.”

The government is also planning to create its own data centre, which will be built as part of the Digital Thailand campaign, to be funded by the private sector. The estimated cost is BT30bn-40bn ($903m-$1.2bn), with an end-2016 target date for completion. Industry participants say that the key for the government is to promote investment in data centres rather than actually building them. They cite the success of Singapore in becoming a hub, and say that this is in part a function of telecoms deregulation in the city. Hong Kong also experienced a data boom, and this has also been credited to its liberal policies in the sector. However, some have suggested that Thailand de-emphasise the creation of data centres and instead use the built capacity elsewhere, such as in Hong Kong and Singapore, and create fast and efficient connections to both.

Currently, the Bank of Thailand greatly restricts the information that can be placed offshore or in the cloud. Personal information must be kept in Thailand, and institutions, such as banks, must proceed carefully when migrating to out-of-house and out-of-country sites. However, some of the factors that have held back the growth of IT in the country have also ironically been pushing its development. The floods of 2011, the colour shirt protest and the 2014 coup convinced many businesses that they need backup and redundancy solutions to protect their data and keep running during times of crisis.

Developments

Presently, Thais mostly use their handsets for communications and games. According to survey by Digital Life, it was suggested that the average person in the study used their device 176 times per day. They spent 261 minutes a day online, 113 minutes on Facebook and 48 minutes playing games. In terms of social media, Facebook leads in subscriber numbers. As of early 2015, it has 30m users, followed by YouTube (26.2m), Twitter (4.5m) and Instagram (1.7m). According to data from Statistica, Facebook penetration was the highest with 32%, followed by Line (29%), Facebook Messenger (28%), Google+ (22%), Instagram (19%), Twitter (14%), Pinterest (11%), WhatsApp (11%), Skype (10%) and LinkedIn (10%).

E-commerce is also a key area of focus, with connectivity, payment systems and logistics improving and buying evolving away from well established patterns. It is indeed experiencing a boom, and that boom is set to continue as 4G grows and as logistics further improve (see analysis). Total e-commerce spending is seen rising 18.2% a year between 2016 and 2020, with the market size expanding to over $5bn in that time period.

Thailand’s internet of things (IoT) is also seen experiencing fast growth. Some observers are forecasting 400m connected devices in the country by 2020. Frost & Sullivan said that IoT spending in Thailand was about $57.7m in 2014, and the company believes that figure could hit close to $1bn by 2020. A number of drivers are behind this rapid growth, including the country’s strong manufacturing base, government initiatives to have public transportation wired and connected, and the development of smart cities. Health care may also represent an opportunity for IoT providers, as Thai society is ageing and the government is looking for solutions to help cope with the medical burden.

Revenue from mobile games totalled under $100m in 2014, and they are expected to hit $300m in 2017. Other areas of development include social networking, app development, mobile payments and location-based services. Thais have been major users of international services, but with 4G creating both the demand and the platform for development, there may be an uptick in the output of local Thai content and solutions.

Smart City

Phuket is targeted to be the country’s first smart city. The plan is for the Software Industry Promotion Agency (SIPA) to invest BT100m ($3m) in developing the digital infrastructure and a data centre for the project. Special economic zones may also be established. SIPA will be assisted by the Science, ICT and Future Planning Ministry of South Korea. The programme will be a pilot, and the hope is to attract start-ups to the island. Chiang Mai has also been mentioned as a possible smart city.

While Thailand’s internet remains largely free, the current government has worked to limit some types of content. In early 2016 it met with Line and Facebook to discuss restrictions, and earlier the government met with Google and YouTube. The authorities have said they would like to see local versions of Google, Facebook and other platforms so that information can be adequately protected from attacks.

The government has proposed cybersecurity bills that would give it broad powers to control, censor and eavesdrop on the internet in order to protect national security. As of early 2016 three relevant bills had been prepared in draft form – the Cyber-security Act, the Computer Misuse Act and the Data Privacy Act. They would consolidate 10 laws related to the digital economy, despite Amnesty International and others having protested.

Outlook

The Thai IT sector appears to be entering a unique take-off period. A convergence of factors, including the rollout of 4G nationwide, government support and better user understanding of the offerings is resulting in improved IT and telecoms infrastructure and increased demand. Thailand is behind Singapore, Hong Kong and even Japan in terms of global connectivity and becoming a hub for the region. It is not clear yet whether it is possible to become one, given issues related to international links and government control. Indeed, whether Thailand becomes a global nexus for internet traffic or simply utilises the capabilities of nearby centres, Digital Thailand is becoming a reality in some form.

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The Report: Thailand 2016

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