Living in the middle of nowhere

19 Jun 2015

Sometimes as a reporter I start to believe the press releases and PR propaganda that Thailand’s two state telcos are in fact proper, functioning telcos and not bureaucratic clowns out of an eighties episode of Yes, Minister. Reflecting on my own experience with TOT living in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Bangkok makes much of the news almost comical.

For the past 16 years or so I have been living in the wilderness of Rangsit, about 40km from central Bangkok a bit beyond the old airport. My neighbours are still rice farmers even to this day. It is actually not that far away from civilization, about 2 km from where civilization ends, and by civilization, I mean pizza deliveries and broadband.

For the longest time the only way to any Internet access was through the IP Star satellite. Yes, just 40km from Bangkok and we needed satellite. Around 2003 if my memory serves me right, I was earning $230 (7,780 baht) a month as a civil servant and paying 3 times that to Loxley for their IP Star service. Only it was not really a service as the internet was totally unusable in evenings as the load increased.

The irony of having to pay 300% of one’s gross income for a basic 512Kbps broadband connection was clear, especially as at the time I was writing speeches for the ICT minister in my day job, boasting about how IP Star had helped Thailand bridge the digital divide and had bought connectivity to the masses with its 100% coverage.

Indeed, it was writing all this political la-la land self-congratulatory effluence that drove me to become a journalist to begin with.

By the middle of the decade True (then still called TelecomAsia – no relation to this website) expanded to near my place. We got them to wire up a house about 2 km away and put up an not quite legal copper pair to that place which sort of worked. However, at the end of every other month the wire would be stolen probably to pay for alcohol or gambling debts by the local thugs and we could not do anything about it as the police pointed out that we could be arrested for putting the wire up to begin with.

It was only at the start of this decade that TOT finally came to the rescue with what I thought was a wired solution. It turned out to be copper to the village headman’s house (yes, we have a village headman. We also have wells for water) and from there it was a wireless connection, so there was no high speed internet.

TOT then sold us a 7,500 baht a month rural wireless solution that worked as long as it did not rain. We needed line of sight to their base station which was actually much further out of town which meant a small tower in the garden. Actually it was not too bad. The price later went down, but still, contention was a joke and you could only realistically use it off peak.

All this, in the year 2010.

A couple of years ago TOT offered fiber. Yes, fiber. 30Mbps of fiber. Finally, I thought, civilization had arrived to my world. Only problem was that it would cost an extra arm and a leg for installation, a price that I sometimes wonder if it really goes to TOT or to the local area manager guy.

But oh, the contention and quality of service, or lack thereof. It was SLOW. 30Mbps peak? I got decent speeds in the day but in the evening it was so slow you could not even watch YouTube on it. VoIP? Forget that too. I was struggling to get 200Kbps at peak times. Sundays were more often than not days without working internet as something obviously had crashed and nobody at TOT was there to reset the box. Indeed the old rural wireless system was faster and more reliable than TOT’s FTTH.

Ah yes, calling up the network guy to reset the box when it crashes or rains. The hallmark of a bona-fide 21st century ISP.

But now the story gets interesting. We now have the telephone number of the TOT area manager on speed dial and call him two or three times a week when the network goes down. Usually he just swaps us to another circuit until too many people complain on that one then swaps us back.

The best month actually was when my mom called him one evening and he was drunk and he showered her in racist pronouns. I think he probably woke up fearing that we might report him and has given us VIP service ever since.

Now TOT is trying to sell us its corporate symmetrical fiber service. 8Mbps with a guaranteed 4Mbps (1:2 contention) costs an eye-watering $330 a month. If it works, I am inclined to go for it. But the super silly thing is that they cannot re-use the existing fiber and need to install an new cable at substantial cost.

This is the TOT I know. The TOT I have to live with and deal with, balancing the yelling and pleading in equal measures lest I be kicked over the edge and lost in the chasm that is the digital divide.

This is an organization which thanks to AIS concession revenue share, has had almost unlimited resources for the last couple of decades and has an army of 16,500 employees and yet cannot even provide me with broadband when it rains.

It pains me when TOT talks about how it needs and deserves the 900 MHz band in order to provide services to the poor, rural people. Poor, rural people like me who have to pay 300% of our income to get a totally crappy service?

As a journalist I should be impartial, but as a customer, I can wholeheartedly say that TOT deserves to die a slow and horrible death for the torment it has given to us who live on the other side of the digital divide.

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