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Don Sambandaraksa

Buyer's remorse and Thailand's 900-MHz auction

The latest chapter in the ongoing 900-MHz auction saga has seen TrueMove announcing it would not pay the first instalment until the regulator clarifies the re-auction terms, in what can only be described as a bout of buyer’s remorse.

All credit to True’s PR team for successfully taking control of the narrative making it out that it’s Jasmine’s fault that things have gotten this messy. True has demanded that Jas be responsible for all costs associated with the auction re-run as well.

Never mind the tiny detail that True itself bid the most in the December auction, even more than Jas, and is arguably in the same boat as Jas - True still has not secured funding for the mammoth 75-billion baht ($2.1 billion) auction bill yet. True’s banker, Siam Commercial Bank, announced it had approved the loan but it had exceeded Bank of Thailand single-lender rules and hence the matter now rests with the banking regulator as to whether to allow the loan. Jasmine’s banker, Bangkok Bank, however still has not even decided whether to grant the loan or not.

That has not stopped the two bank’s research arms issuing warm, fuzzy statements about their clients’ prospects though which has been duly echoed in mainstream media.

The regulator, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, has not helped with its negative messages. Just days after the first installment was due, NBTC commissioner Doctor Pravit Leesathpornwongsa suggested that Jas’ licence might be offered to runner-up AIS instead if it fails to pay.

More recently, NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tantasit said earlier in the week that he was confident both True and Jas would pay as the auction terms were watertight and neither could risk losing their existing NBTC licences (Jas is a major fixed line broadband player under its 3BB brand). Yesterday though, Takorn shifted a gear and said that any re-run of the auction would start at Jas’ final bid of 75 billion baht and Jas would be responsible for the costs of the auction, roughly 50 million baht last time. If nobody bid for it, then the spectrum would be shelved for a year until it is auctioned again.

At this juncture, I sensed a disturbance in the force. As if a million palms suddenly landed on foreheads.

As Allan Rasmussen from telecoms consultancy Yozzo nicely summarised, “The NBTC is taking no responsibility whatsoever”.

  • Who drafted the auction rules and left this big hole?
  • Who is leaking stories that Jas might not be able to pay?
  • Who changed the value of 900 MHz by giving 4G to everyone before and after the auction?
  • Who pronounced success and money to the state coffers before the bear was shot?

Before the auction the landscape looked bleak. Other than more 1800-MHz spectrum when Dtac’s concession ended in 2018 there was no clear spectrum roadmap. Consequently the bid was high due to scarcity.

Now that the auction is finished, the regulator and ICT Ministry have been busy giving 4G spectrum and networks as well as taxpayer cash to everyone. CAT got 20 MHz of 1800 (which is supposed to be returned in 2018, so either they can break even in two years or they know they will get the spectrum gifted to them when Dtac’s concession expires) and will of course need a partner (which looks likely to be Dtac).

CAT also got permission and cash from the MICT to upgrade “its” 850-MHz 3G network to 4G. Yes, that one that was accidentally rolled out without a licence and the one that is under both national anti corruption commission and auditor general investigations for corruption.

TOT/AIS got back into bed with each other. AIS was to become TOT’s strategic partner (again) and TOT’s skeletal 2100-MHz 3G network would be developed and AIS would be an MVNO on it taking up 80% of TOT’s capacity mirroring the above-mentioned CAT-True 850-MHz deal.

The NBTC also announced that MCOT would return 2600 from broadcasting and announced a new auction for three more licences next year.

In other words, after the auction ended, the NBTC and MICT have opened the floodgates and suddenly paying 75 billion for just 10 MHz of spectrum looks very, very silly indeed. But not paying, if the letter of the law is followed, is unlikely to be an option for True. Of course, there is always Article 44 of the constitution - the absolute power clause yielded by the junta leader General Prayuth Chanocha. One wonders if it will get that far.