Thai coup brings ICT to the forefront

26 May 2014

There has been precious little official news since the coup in Thailand and for the most part life goes on as usual in Bangkok. Mobile phone networks still work, the Internet has not been cut off and social media continues to boil, for the most part.

The military junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order, at first dissolved only the caretaker government (parliament had been dissolved months ago in an attempt to get back in with a snap election), and allowed the autonomous agencies, which include the telecoms regulator, judiciary and – initially - senate to continue functioning.

The senate was dissolved later on 24 May. The junta also asked judges and members of autonomous bodies to refrain from making any public comments.

One the first day of the coup, the NCPO ordered all ISPs and the national broadcasting and telecommunications commission (NBTC) to report in where they were given orders to block all unlicensed broadcasts and to stop their rebroadcast online. This was initially understood to be aimed at the many red-shirt TV channels that support Thaksin Shinawatra, though it soon became clear that the military wanted to shut down all sides as anti-Thaksin stations were also silenced and prominent figures taken into custody.

The NBTC commissioners were not involved and it was the secretariat carrying out the orders directly from the generals.

However, the Junta’s 22nd announcement on 23 May did raise some eyebrows. The coup makers divided responsibility of the various ministries and Information and Communication Technology found itself in the premier group under the control of General Thanasak Patimapakorn, under the national security wing alongside the ministries of defence, interior and foreign affairs.

That ICT has taken such a prominent place under the control of a high-profile general rather than fall into the economic or social categories along with science and technology is surprising and yet worrying.

One could presume that putting ICT so high up on the list would mean that the military wants to monitor communications and engage in some cyber espionage or at the very least keep very close tabs on social media. Or it could be that the controversy over AIS and Shin Satellite - which triggered the last coup that saw Thaksin Shinawatra removed from power - are soon to be revisited.

Meanwhile, there is a question of what will happen to deregulation and spectrum refarming in Thailand. After the last coup in 2006, that junta allowed the telecoms regulator to continue functioning, but its work was severely hampered by a lack of supporting laws and lack of broadcasting regulator. In the end, most of what the national telecommunications commission tried to do was overturned in the courts for illegal shortcuts and years were wasted in the path to deregulation.

The national broadcasting and telecommunications commission still exists, but without the constitution and laws to back it up, history may well repeat itself.

At stake is the refarming of UHF TV spectrum and the migration to digital TV. The army has been keen to keep control of its analog TV station, Channel 5, and it is likely that now that they are in control, the regulator’s efforts at migration and refarming will be compromised.

Also in question is the fate of the 4G spectra refarming. Without a constitution, would the NBTC dare to hold a spectrum auction for 1800-MHz which was pencilled in for August this year? Telecoms chairman Setthapong Malisuwan said the auction would go ahead as planned, but that statement was made less than a week into the coup.

Or would the military simply hand out concessions to its favoured businessmen the way Shin Corporation (now Temasek-owned Intouch / AIS) and TelecomAsia (now True Corp) got their cut-price satellite and telecom concessions handed out in the wake of the 1991 coup?

In the last 2006 coup a lot of bluster was made of revoking the Thaicom concession, but nothing happened.

Perhaps True will get yet another extension to its 1800-MHz 2G concession come this September because of the turmoil, especially now that the constitution that disallows for any extensions is no longer in force. Next year all eyes will be on AIS’ 900-MHz concession. It seems unlikely that normality will be resumed by then, unless one considers coups and corruption part of the normal cycle in Thailand.

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