The NBTC's Christmas gift to local telcos

02 Jan 2013

Thailand's Dtac got an interesting Christmas present from regulator NBTC, in the form of an announcement that may result in half its 2G spectrum being seized.

In what can only be described as an orchestrated series of announcements, first CAT Telecom said it would only be returning half the expiring 1800-MHz spectrum to the NBTC for re-allocation, and this move was backed by the ICT Minister.

Next, the telecom regulator’s commissioner for legal affairs Suthipol Thaweechaikarn announced on December 19 that the regulator was looking at amending the frequency master plan to allow for a more gradual return of 2G spectrum.

Then on 24 December, news emerged that the NBTC was to recall half of Dtac’s 50 MHz stockpile of 1800-MHz spectrum for use in 4G.

All of this is intertwined.

Dtac’s CEO Jon Eddy Abdullah earlier explained that CAT had ordered Dtac to vacate the spectrum, citing that it had not demonstrated necessity. However, Abdullah said that he wanted the NBTC to take back the spectrum so it could be re-auctioned along with the TrueMove and DPC spectrum (12.5 and 12.5) that expires in September 2013. Together, this 50 MHz pool of spectrum would make for a sizeable amount for the telcos to bid on for 4G services.

Well, it appears that the Dtac boss got half his wish for Christmas. The NBTC is talking about taking back that unused spectrum. Question is, will it go to auction or will CAT just seize it and get the backing of a cabinet resolution to sort of make it legal?

When I first saw this news, my first reaction was, obviously this is illegal. After all, the frequency allocation act did not give the regulator much room for discretion at all. The law drew a line in the sand that spectrum had to be returned for re-allocation at the end of the concessions without any chance of extension, and all the regulator could do was decide how long other non-concession spectrum should continue.

How could True’s concession be extended and how could spectrum not be returned after the concessions ended? It made no sense to me.

That and the brand new master plan should have some permanence to it otherwise it should not be called a master plan. Perhaps we shall hereafter refer to it as the dish of the day?

Anyway, back to the law. Article 83 of the frequency allocation act, a transitional article, lays down what has to happen.

Paragraph two says that any spectrum under licence, concession or agreement form a state enterprise or government entity can only continue until the end of the licence, concession or agreement.

Paragraph three says that the NBTC must then take these dates and create a frequency master plan that has certainty as per article 48.

Going back to Article 48, this refers to the frequency master plan and what it must include, but it is paragraph six that is relevant here, which says, “The NBTC must monitor the outcome of the plan and must update the plan for more efficient spectrum management and to encompass new technologies.”

So, what happened is that in essence, the regulator saw that the law only allowed the master plan to be amended for efficiency and new technologies (in this case 4G LTE). Thus it was ostensibly amended to pave the way for 4G and, while they are at it, they are free to tinker with other parts, such as the timeframe too, something that they could not do without the 4G argument opening the door.

It is obvious that the key beneficiary here is TrueMove. It is the only telco that needs more time given that it’s concession ends in nine months, while AIS subsidiary DPC is practically a deserted network anyway.

It is interesting how all these so-called coincidences just happen to fall the way of local interests leaving the evil westerners scratching their heads as they are left out of these grand schemes.

Elsewhere, last week AIS received a trial licence for LTE on 2.3 GHz and TOT announced it was giving up on 3G and focusing its resources on LTE instead. One wonders what will happen to its 3G spectrum? Oh, wait. AIS paid a premium to ensure it got pick of spectrum first and picked spectrum adjacent to TOT’s. Wow. Who could have predicted that?

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