The curious case of TOT's rural broadband project

28 Sep 2016

Priorities. It is never about what people in government say is important, but rather what they do first. In this case, the question is why did Thailand's military junta feel it so important that they needed to overrule a budget watchdog investigation and fasttrack state telco TOT’s rural broadband project?

TOT’s rural broadband project has been the subject of a lot of controversy. There were early reports - which the then ICT Ministry strenuously denied - that the entire $433 million (15 billion baht) project consisted of three pages and was simply a front for the Single Gateway super surveillance project.

Well, to be precise the MICT denied it was related to the Single Gateway and denied that MICT senior officers had resigned in protest of the project. They did not, at least to me, deny the cost nor the allegation that the TOR was just three pages long. The misunderstanding, I was told, came from the firewall clause that was necessary to protect the poor rural broadband users.

You know and I know that a firewall’s logs is effectively a mass surveillance tool.

Anyway, the project was later put on hold by the office of the auditor-general. In his very last task as ICT minister Dr Uttama Savanayana held a press conference saying that the misunderstanding with the OAG had been cleared up and that TOT’s rural broadband project was not about universal service obligation investment but about uplifting the country’s competitiveness. Therefore normal budgetary rules do not apply.

Then the MICT was sort-of disbanded and what was left of it was morphed into the Digital Ministry for Economy and Society (DE for short). Many of the MICT’s bureaus were actually removed from the new DE and given to a new Digital Economy Commission that is chaired by the Prime Minister directly, but that is another matter.

Deputy Junta leader and deputy prime minister Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong was appointed acting ICT minister and later acting digital economy minister.

So far, so good.

But why, pray tell, did Prajin have to approve and fasttrack the TOT rural broadband plan despite the OAG investigation and all the allegations flying around. Why did he not wait for a new DE minister to be sworn in and sign the project off? Prachin said the project had been revised with the OAG points taken into consideration and that it was now, and I quote, “100% legal”.

Uttama said the budget rules did not need apply. Prajin said the project had been amended and was now 100% legal. Curious.

Was it because rural people needed broadband urgently? Arguably with widespread, inexpensive LTE through healthy competition the need for rural broadband is much less than it was just a few years ago. Was it because that because he was a member of the ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order nobody would question this order? If so, why is the TOT rural broadband project so important to the junta unless it is the Single Gateway project reborn after all?

The other question is why is the government so eager to invest in something that the private sector is doing reasonably well already?

I have said this once and I will say it again. Either the government is lying and is continuing to treat the Snowden revelations as a to-do list and roll-out a mass surveillance network, or it is competing with the private sector with state money in what is a blatant breach of its WTO commitments. Take your pick.

Or perhaps Uttama was being honest when he said that the TOT broadband project was about the greater good of the country and therefore rules do not apply, a sentiment that seems to explain much of what is happening in Thailand lately.

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