Send in the clowns: NBTC adds sleeping quarters

27 Nov 2015

If things were weird in Thailand in the run-up to the 4G auction almost two weeks ago, events over the past few days have only just added to the fun.

AIS and TrueMove won the November 13 33-hour auction for 15-MHz on the 1800 MHz band for 18 years at a combined price of $2.25 billion (80,788 million baht) which works out at around $1.7 million a day for each licence holder. AIS was in a hurry and paid the 50% initial payment on November 23 and received its licence on November 26.

As if to show of its engineering prowess, AIS switched on its 1800 MHz network so that it could be seen by phones scanning for networks within hours of receiving the licence. AIS VP for networks Saran Phalopakarn, beaming at his accomplishment, said it was simply reconfiguring the existing multimode base stations it had already rolled out for his 2.1-GHz network.

However the other winner, if you can call them that given the price paid, TrueMove had put off paying the 50% initial payment citing that the date was not auspicious. They did pay the 50% later on November 26 but was reported not to have submitted any bank guarantee for the rest of the payments, meaning that the regulator cannot issue the licences yet.

Not that it even wants a licence it seems. TrueMove wrote to the NBTC to ask for a postponement in switching off its existing 2G network on that spectrum.

The Chinese-Thai operation still has 7 million 2G subscribers who have not yet ported to its new networks.

It is like a chicken carcass without meat. One cannot eat it, but throwing it away seems a waste.

The other joker in the pack is CAT. One day before the auction, the NBTC caved in to CAT’s blackmail demands and gave the green light for the state telco to roll out a 4G network on 20 MHz of ex-Dtac, unused 1800-MHz spectrum. The initial permission was given only until 2018, when Dtac’s concession ends - though the regulator did say that CAT would be able to submit further documents later arguing why the network period should be extended.

Thin end of the wedge? After all, True did it with its trial 850-MHz 3G network that it accidentally rolled out nationwide without a license, in what was later ruled to be an unintentional mistake and thus should not be punished.

Even before the auction started, CAT said it was looking for partners to develop its 20 MHz.

So in effect, the auction was a reverse auction. The bidders were bidding for 15 MHz but the loser gets 20 MHz for free. The cost however, is having to deal with CAT and sort out the extension in three years’ time which, knowing Thai politics, will be filled with lots of melodrama but will probably happen.

Of course, it would probably take CAT three years to come up with a business plan anyway.

Meanwhile, the NBTC is turning itself into a resort of sorts. One would have thought that a 33-hour auction had something wrong with its design, but no. The regulator was so pleased at the result that netted them over 200% of the estimated price, that they have dug in and will stick to the same format for the 900-MHz auction coming up on December 15.

One of the biggest issues with the 1800 MHz auction was that everyone needed sleep. The NBTC had initially offered them to sleep in a hotel under police guard so that they could not communicate and collude, and that offer was later changed to sleeping in rooms in the NBTC office. So for the 900-MHz auction, the NBTC has modified two of its buildings into four secure, contained and assumingly communication-proof suites so that the telecom execs can nap. That is, assuming the auction lasts through the night again.

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