Fate of TrueMove 2G subs still in the air

28 Mar 2013

The clock is ticking on TrueMove’s 2G concession - due to end on 15 September this year - and the path ahead for its 17 million subscribers remains unclear.

True has 12.5 MHz of spectrum on 1800. AIS subsidiary DPC has another 12.5 and both are soon to end. AIS has long ignored its DPC network, choosing to concentrate on its 900-MHz network.

The question is to whom will the spectrum be returned. Concession holder CAT Telecom thinks that it can keep hold of half the spectrum and use it, arguing that having a network returned to it without spectrum to operate it would be a huge waste of taxpayer money. Funny how CAT plays the good guy protecting the taxpayer interests when it suits it and conveniently forgets how it has long squandered the concession revenue share that should rightfully be for all the people, but that is soon to be ancient history.

The regulator originally thought it could have auctioned off 1800 for LTE early this year before the concessions ended. As usual things have slipped and only recently was a sub-committee set up for this. Anyway, the NBTC has more important things to do, such as investigate why an iPhone 5 exploded in the name of consumer protection.

Anyway, True has two more networks (actually three, but the PCT network hardly counts these days, or four if you count its TrueVisions swathe of 2.5-GHz). It has a fudge of a deal with CAT Telecom, taking over Hutchinson’s CDMA network, for an 850-MHz 3G network with 15 MHz. And last October, True won another 15 MHz on 2100-MHz, which it will use to launch LTE and 3G soon.

The 850 network is run by a CAT MVNO called RealMove and the network itself is in turn outsourced to CAT to True under a subsidiary called BFKT. The 2100 network is called RealFuture, but both are marketed under the same commercial brand of TrueMoveH.

On a side note, the future of the True-CAT 850-MHz deal should be clear soon. The NBTC originally said it was definitely illegal, only for a sub-committee to conclude that True (BFKT) had unintentionally broken the law and should not be punished for rolling out a 3G network without a licence.

Then the NBTC commissioner for legal affairs questioned why the sub-committee presumed without any back up evidence that BFKT needed a licence in the first place and told them to go back and reconsider the report. The NBTC has called a meeting on 5 April to settle this ongoing issue.

That said, the BFKT licence issue is almost a Jedi mind trick to divert attention from the fact that the True-CAT deal did not get cabinet approval, something required under the public-private joint investment act for any deal worth over 1 billion baht. But then again, a new PPP law just cleared the lower house and is likely to exonerate both as virtually any requirement in the old law can henceforth be overruled by a cabinet-appointed committee. So all they need to do is to drag things out just a little longer. Such things happen in this country.

In a sane world, the users would be orderly ported out to either of the two new networks. In Thailand, things never happen the way they do elsewhere on planet Earth.

There is an incentive for CAT to keep the status quo. Under the existing regime, it gets a 30% revenue share cut and later this year, when the revenue share is to be paid directly to the exchequer, it can still withhold costs of managing the concession and of USO projects though admittedly this would be more relevant to its Dtac concession that runs until 2018. Unless, of course, it can get the concession somehow extended, which is what it seems to be trying to do.

Adiruth Thothaveesansuk, MD for mobile business at True, explained that TrueMove H 850 (RealMove) has a mobile number portability clearinghouse capacity of just 4,800 numbers a day. That is further divided into 4500 for True and 300 for CAT Telecom’s own My 3G network. Porting out the users would take years under this system and he would much prefer that the clearing house be expanded.

Adiruth said that the new RealFuture 2.1-GHz network would be launching very soon (but not in March) and would be made up of both LTE and 3G base stations, and that the MNP capacity had not yet been decided.

As for the 850 RealMove network, the legacy CDMA network it bought from Hong Kong’s Hutchinson would be shut down on the 26th or 27th of this month and this would increase 3G capacity with more spectrum available. Only 40,000 users remain on Hutch and most of the accounts are barely used.

RealMove currently has 12,000 base stations nationwide and will have the full 13,500 base stations online by the end of the year. Any further expansion will depend on whether CAT telecom orders an expansion.

“Don’t confuse us with running the network. We are just a reseller. CAT just hires us to look after their base stations,” he said, stressing that RealMove was just an MVNO.

One of the journalists asked him if there was any preference between RealMove and RealFuture when it came to getting users on board. Adiruth said he had no preference and refused to confirm or deny the licence fees of the two networks.

I asked him how he thought of CAT Telecom’s tweet stating that any attempt to bulk port users off the concessionary network before 16 September would be a breach of the concession agreement.

“Who is @CATplc? Is it an official account?” he snapped back, saying it was the first he had heard of that stance.

CAT PR later said that the Twitter account was run by some young people in the company to get information out. However it was not to be considered an official statement and she was almost apologetic at that particular accusation. Someone in CAT obviously needs to go and take a course on social media.

However, while CAT does not have any official stance on pre-porting out users, it does say that the regulator is bound by law to negotiate a transitionary period with CAT for the current 17 million users

The fact that these negotiations are not yet taking place and that nobody seems to have any idea what will happen come 16 Septembers suggests that 4G on 1800 will not happen any time soon.

Meanwhile, back at the press conference proper, TrueMove H was offering unlimited Line, Gmail, Facebook and True’s own MyLife social network with 100 minutes of calls and 500 MB of other data for just $6.79 (199 baht) a month to students, teachers, civil servants and armed forces. Adiruth estimates that this market segment numbers between 7-8 million, and would be happy if TrueMoveH acquired 10-20% of the segment.

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