Thai 900-MHz public hearing leaves key questions unasked

12 Aug 2015

Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission recently held a public hearing on the upcoming 900-MHz auction. The hearing had the usual messages of operators and consumers alike wanting more for less, with none of the important questions actually being asked by anyone.

TOT was first off the bat, complaining that 2x10 MHz was not enough to provide a good quality 4G service. Yes, TOT which is trying to sue everyone and his dog to stop the auction unless they get 10 MHz of 900-MHz for free, is now complaining that their 10 MHz is not enough apparently, perhaps setting the stage for the junta to grant them all 20 MHz perhaps.

The state telco urged the NBTC to set clear guidelines as to what the public should expect for 4G speeds. It also urged the NBTC to set the reserve price at 100% of the target price as it does not expect any new entrant to enter and compete in the bidding. Coming from someone who is expected to get even more spectrum for free that is something.

Dtac’s representative reiterated its call for band-specific spectrum caps and for both the 900- and 1800-MHz spectrum to be auctioned at the same time. It also called on the NBTC to hold four blocks of 5-MHz rather than two blocks of 10.

In a show of solidarity, AIS also called for 1800- and 900- to be auctioned together and echoed Dtac’s earlier position statement calling for a clear spectrum roadmap / master plan before the auction goes ahead.

Interesting, the lack of a frequency master plan was the reason the courts granted a last minute injunction on the 2010 3G auction that eventually derailed it. Is it a thinly veiled threat? Probably not. This auction is already so ad-hoc and all dependent on the will of the junta that small technical legal niggles such as the lack of a spectrum plan would probably make no difference.

Predictably, TrueMove’s representative said that the reserve price was too high and that the NBTC should lower it. Interestingly it also called for the first three payments to be just for the 1/6th of the reserve price with the rest back-loaded into the final three payments.

A representative from the National Social and Economic Board called on the NBTC to show how the expected and reserve price for spectrum was calculated, echoing an earlier call from the Thailand Development and Research Institute president who blasted the NBTC for secrecy and hiding behind the ITU consultant. The NESDB asked what the NBTC would do if there were more than enough bidders for the 70% reserve price rule to be used, but if the bidding ended short of the estimated price? Perhaps they expect the new entrant to only be there to make up the numbers.

If there are more bidders than slots, the NBTC will use a 70% reserve price, else it will be at 100% of the ITU calculated number. With four licences and three operators, they would need new entrant Jasmine (which is moderately successful in the fixed line broadband sector) to enter seriously.

The highlight of the event was a series of members of the public echoing the ongoing radiation scare stories and calling on the regulator to ban cell sites within 400 meters to 1 kilometer of built-up areas, schools or hospitals. Obviously these people think they have a better understanding of the physics of electromagnetic radiation than they do of geometry and Bangkok. I doubt there is anywhere in Bangkok 400m away from any of the above, save perhaps if someone sets up a cell site smack bang in the national football stadium or racecourse perhaps.

Another questioned why 900-MHz had 19-year licences but 1800 was on just 15 years.

Many were grumbling about prices, calling for lower prices, smaller packages, and for billing to be done to two decimals rather than rounded up to the nearest baht (2.8 US cents). Yes, 3 cents is too much rounding for some.

Strange though that nobody asked about how the auction was proceeding without a full NBTC. The commissioner for legal, Suthipol “you-know-who had unintentionally rolled out a nationwide 850MHz 3G network and should not be punished” Thaweechaikarn had resigned earlier and joined the board of the Office of the Auditor General. The lack of a lawyer on board obviously was not any concern to anyone. Who needs laws in Thailand?

Nor was the tiny fact that the Foreign Dominance Notification is still there in law only that nobody is talking about it. Arguably all three telcos are in defiance of the law now that the formerly indigenous telco is now in bed with China Mobile.

Nobody asked either how the new NBTC act would affect the auction. Among other things the new act will merge the 5+5+1 telecoms, broadcasting and chairman board into a single 7-member board. If the law comes into effect would the new members not want to put their foot down on the 4G auction? Or would the act be delayed until after the auction. The new board would also only be selected from the elites (head of a state department, lieutenant-general or CEO of a 1-billion Baht public company), effectively ruling out the young blood and NGOs that have kept the current regulator, well, not a total embarrassment.

If it were to be delayed, while we may then have stability, I do not see how the auction would be legal on two key counts. The current NBTC act says that spectrum can only be allocated through competitive auction. The key problem is that the NBTC is not actually re-auctioning expired TrueMove and AIS (DPC) spectrum. It is actually auctioning TrueMove and Dtac spectrum, having shoved Dtac up into ex DPC spectrum. Reallocation is clearly illegal under the current act but under the new act, from what I understand, anything can be overruled by the Digital Economy Commission (chaired by Prime Minister General Prayuth Chanocha). The provisional Digital Economy Commission has ordered the swap, but the DE act has not yet been passed either.

Nor did anyone ask about the ongoing legislation between CAT/TOT and AIS/Dtac which could perhaps preclude the two from new contracts with the state. Not that the state telcos were making much sense though. The ICT Minister has ordered TOT to settle decades of legal battles with AIS in a month, which means a couple of weeks to go. Not that anyone actually expects that to happen.

Oh, well. Life goes on. The NBTC is accepting further comments at the email address [email protected] until the 6th of September - if any reader does send a question in, do CC: me on [email protected] and I’ll pick the more creative questions for a future column.

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