Stumbling into corruption in Thailand

26 Mar 2013

Sometimes one has to work hard to get a scoop while at other times a whirlwind of corruption just reveals itself by virtue of a well-intended introduction.

It would follow that the current generation of tech savvy students would be serenaded and wooed by the telcos as this connected smartphone generation will continue their connectivity addiction once they graduate and enter the workforce. One would assume that getting the network right in universities would be critical.

However, there is a university campus just north of Bangkok, with around 30,000 students spread among its 865,000 square meters where connectivity is beyond abysmal, at least on the network I use. It is not so much the case that the data is slow, rather data is all but nonexistent during peak times and even voice calls can be a challenge.

My brother also just happened to be lecturing there and had just rolled out a WiFi network in his building. Putting one and one together, I mentioned that to a C-level executive of the telco I was using and said it would be easy to get approval for small cells, at least in my brother's faculty, and that would make everyone happy.

Or so I thought.

That little spark of a good intention got quite a few feathers ruffled.

The telco in question was not allowed to put up any cells on campus. It was compensating by essentially ringfencing the entire campus with masts aimed inwards. Obviously that was not enough and the network was crumbling. The engineers on the ground let on to their frustration and that they were reaching an impasse in negotiations with the university.

Negotiations? Well, I guess some compensation would be in order for being able to put up small cells on campus. Some.

But the level of compensation demanded was beyond reasonable and verging on blackmail. I learned that the university had demanded the telco upgrade its power subsystem in exchange for permission to roll out small cells on campus, not just for the cellsites, but for the entire campus.

Power was a problem and with the population of a medium sized town on campus, blackouts were quite frequent. But the idea that teachers turned managers would hold their students ransom in exchange for a power grid upgrade sickened me and everyone involved.

I walked away.

I did not ask how things ended and my brother has since focused on teaching rather than management and procurement. My only regret was approaching the situation as a lay person rather than as a journalist from the outset. The engineers I talked to would probably be in trouble if had quoted them and named the telco and my brother might soon find himself without a job if I were to name the university and the faculty at ground zero.

But this level of corruption is commonplace in Thailand. Consumers are little more than bargaining pieces to be taken hostage whenever it suits the whims of any pencilpushing bureaucrat whose sole purpose in life is to delay projects in order to receive a kickback.

If this is what they teach in university, no wonder the country is in such a mess.

While on the subject of hostage taking it is worth noting the latest twist the refarming of 1800-MHz has taken. With TrueMove 2G's concession ending in September, the regulator has set up a committee to oversee a 4G auction of spectrum that concession holder CAT Telecom is refusing to have back, though that is another matter for another day.

In a sane world, an orderly migration to TrueMove 3G would now be taking place. However, in the twilight zone that is Thailand, concession holder CAT Telecom has announced that any attempt to port out subscribers in bulk would be a contravention of the concession terms and that the NBTC must give them extra time on 1800 to resolve the matter (one entirely of it's own making) after the concession has ended for the sake of True's subscribers.

I wonder how many of CAT's executives studied at that university.

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