Floods, figures and resilience

24 Oct 2011

The floods that have ravaged much of central Thailand are now finally at the doorsteps of its capital city of Bangkok. Trapped indoors with nothing to do but hope, with most shops and businesses closed and global car and technology supply chains in tatters, peopled turned to the the Internet for news. Number one telco AIS has said that cellular traffic has jumped 70% in recent days and Facebook usage is such that Thailand is number three in terms of growth worldwide.

A paper from Frost and Sullivan says that Internet traffic has jumped 40% as people clamour for news. Of course, having senior Ministers contradict each other and issue almost daily evacuation orders only to rescind them later has left the public confused and eager for any scrap of information they can get their hands on.

Bangkok Post and the Nation, the country’s two English language newspapers, have more than doubled their traffic in the last month and leading local newspaper sites have seen 50% increases over the same period.

But the real growth has been in social networking sites, especially Facebook - which has 12 million Thai users, or 17% of the population, connected. Year on year, it has grown 132%. Frost and Sullivan’s Dr Monsinee Keeratikrainon expects the floods to increase the growth rate to 150%, making Thailand the third fastest growing Facebook country after India at 162% year on year.

Meanwhile, number one Thai telco AIS has said that cellular traffic has jumped 70% as people clamour to keep in touch with loved ones and coordinate relief efforts.

AIS has already lost 67 of its base stations to flooding, 29 of which in the worst hit province of Ayuthaya.

The cellular networks have proven highly resilient to the flooding so far. Fixed line ADSL has not fared as well many complaints of outages hitting the social media streams.

One could argue that the status quo works well; that competition and redundant networks (due more to mistrust and inability to share rather than by design) has saved the day in times of crisis. But why, then, have successive governments been so intent on nationalising the transmission network and returning control to the two state telcos?

The previous Democrat government called it the National Broadband Plan. Pundits said it was a broadband nationalisation plan. The current Puea Thai government has called it an NGN project, but the idea is pretty much the same - turn backhaul into the domain of state telcos, let the cellcos play in an open radio and retail sector and shift the huge profits (or taxation without representation) to the wholesale layer.

Is the reward of huge public sector procurement projects really worth it?

While it is any government’s prerogative to decide how they should tax their subjects - sorry, citizens - what the regulator should be taking note of is the fact that the only cellular operator to have a total network outage, albeit only for a few hours, during the current flooding is state owned TOT. Not that they had enough subscribers (or coverage) for the general public to take notice. Come the next crisis, the country might not be so lucky.

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