In line with its ambitions to become a leading centre of high-value technology development and manufacturing in South-east Asia, Thailand is positioning itself at the forefront of global moves to adopt 5G. The new technology is expected to increase download speeds by up to 10 Gbps over 4G.

To achieve this aim, the government has empowered the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) – an independent body formed in 2010 – to spearhead these efforts. Nevertheless, efforts by the country to auction the necessary spectrum have experienced delays.

Potential Benefits

The economic dividends of a successful transition to 5G could prove decisive in ensuring the ongoing development of the technology sector. Just like its predecessors, 3G and 4G, 5G presents a significant technological shift that is set to transform connectivity. If incorporated successfully, such changes can be expected to enhance productivity, generate new revenue streams and support innovation, all measures that will make Thailand more attractive to potential investors. Away from the urban centres, these advancements could provide further opportunities for Thailand’s burgeoning small and medium-sized enterprises by facilitating increased access to new markets, and making it easier to incorporate production into regional and global value chains.

Notably, such a move would give the country significant advantage over neighbouring countries when it comes to attracting much needed foreign direct investment. The government has made significant efforts to develop Thailand into a leading centre of technology in the ASEAN region, not least through its Thailand 4.0 initiative, and while embracing 5G is only one component of this programme, it is crucial if Thailand is to maintain its competitiveness.

Spectrum Auction Delay

There is a scarcity of spectrum availability in Thailand, with spectrum utilisation amounting to roughly 50% of that in Malaysia and Singapore, and the country has not released fresh spectrum into the market since its 3G auction. A planned auction to licence the 2600-MHz spectrum needed for 5G technology was delayed in April 2017 because of a lack of coherent frequency principles and administrative hurdles.

Another factor behind the delay was that 190 MHz of the spectrum was allocated to the state-owned public broadcaster MCOT. As a result, there is currently a disagreement between NBTC and MCOT related to compensation for the spectrum. Nevertheless, the proposed restructuring of the NBTC aims to deal with this issue, but had not been finalised as of July 2018. These hurdles have seen Thailand fall behind other regional and global competitors keen to embrace the technology.

Taking Stock

While the spectrum delay may be presents a setback for the adoption of 5G, the postponement also creates an opportunity for NBTC to engage with stakeholders and establish a comprehensive, long-term strategy towards embracing 5G. These setbacks also allow authorities to learn lessons from other Asian countries including Singapore, South Korea and Japan, which have already shut down 2G services to free up spectrum space for more advanced services, such as 5G. A plan for the future development of 5G may follow a similar policy or could include breaking down the spectrum offerings into smaller, more manageable sizes.

Nevertheless, speaking at the Huawei Asia-Pacific Innovation Day in June 2018 Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak reaffirmed the government’s commitment to ensuring that the necessary telecoms infrastructure is in place in order to allow for the adoption of 5G systems by 2020. Furthermore, at the same event, Takorn Tantasith, secretary general of the NBTC, stated that he expects some 5G services to be implemented by operators by late 2020.