Whispers in the lobby at the anniversary of the TAT

15 Sep 2015

The Telecommunications Association of Thailand celebrated its 25th anniversary yesterday, with a host of VIPs queuing up on stage to deliver polite if generic messages of congratulations and praise Thailand on how far the country has come since the days of bottle-sized analogue phones.

It was also a chance to listen to the vision of the new ICT Minister Uttama Savanayana and junta deputy chief and deputy prime minister Prajin Juntong up close and personal.

Or lack, thereof.

Uttama gave a nice congratulatory speech and in his keynote dropped a lot of nice keywords. Digital divide this, e-health that, ASEAN hub this, e-government services that and so on.

But the newly appointed ICT Minister was totally lacking in any newsworthy information aside from a few soundbites.

The ICT Ministry’s big plan is to create a new digital roadmap master plan within the next two months which will be put to General Prayuth Chan-ocha for approval.

So in other words, after the reshuffle, nothing will happen for three months until he gets up to speed.

Reading between the lines, Uttama did say that the government would turn Thailand into a regional data center hub so that foreign companies will host their regional operations in Thailand and that he has talked to the Tourism Minister and he agrees that Thailand needs a tourism e-commerce platform to save on the exorbitant prices the foreign companies charge for bookings.

At this stage I admit to having to suppress a giggle or two and it was obvious that Uttama had no idea whatsoever at all about how the Internet works. His body language said it all, a hesitant, stuttering reading from the notes he had in his hand.

On the plus side he did name-drop the topics of infrastructure sharing, regional connectivity and how to help SMEs with technology. On the last point he did say, “We need to teach SMEs what is good about the internet other than Facebook.” Which makes one wonder what is wrong with Facebook as an e-commerce platform for SMEs.

If Uttama’s keynote was painful, national council for peace and order deputy leader Prajin Juntong’s address was downright cringeworthy. Apparently the advances of the last two decades can be summed up in phones shrinking from huge bottle-sized analog phones to smaller ones and that was it.

Earlier Prajin said that he wanted the auction to go ahead as planned and that he did not mind if state telco TOT would launch a lawsuit to halt the auction as it claims 900 MHz for itself.

I wonder if he will get his wish.

Elsewhere in the lobby, the real conversations were happening and I found myself talking a lot about the issue of fragmentation of 1800-MHz.

To recap, we have from low to high 12.5 MHz (True), 25 (Dtac ends 2018), 12.5 (DPC/AIS) and 25 (Dtac/CAT unused). The telecom regulator will auction off the True and DPC spectrum. The problem is that the spectrum is not contiguous and that modern LTE can happily use 5 or 10, but 12.5 is a waste of 2.5 MHz.

By and large, mainstream media were totally oblivious to the fragmentation issue. The few reporters who were aware of fragmentation were not aware that a 5 MHz block size would mean that Thailand would be throwing away 5 out of the 25 MHz it has on 1800.

Of course, a telco could do something crazy like run four 3 MHz carriers instead of two 5 MHz carriers, but since when has anyone actually gone live with a 3 MHz carrier. Or 2x5 and 1x1.3 MHz. Or more likely, just throw it away.

The industry on the other hand was well aware of the waste that a 2.5-MHz appendix would bring, but everyone I talked to was of the opinion that at this late stage with the auction two months away, delaying the auction to fix things would be more damaging to the country than going ahead with this botched auction and wasting 2.5 MHz. Besides, with the laws the way there are, any delay might not even be just a year for the new laws to be passed.

One executive did however say that if the military were serious, this is where they should use article 44 of the constitution, the absolute power clause, to defragment 1800 once and for all, agreeing with former ICT Minister Pornchai Rujiprapa.

Away from the TCT’s 25th birthday bash, things are crazy and confusing as ever in Thailand with too many cooks spoiling the broth. Days after coming to power, the new ICT Minister scrapped Dtac’s spectrum return/defragmentation plan saying it could not be done in time for the auction. However, yesterday the regulator’s telecom sub-committee approved the plan and said it would be put to the cabinet for approval.

NBTC commissioner Pravit Leesathapornwongsa seems to think that the auction will happen on 11 November in making that announcement to the press.

The Nation quoted an unnamed ICT Ministry source saying that the spectrum swap plan also involves giving CAT a licence to roll out LTE on the remaining 20 MHz of 1800 that is Dtac’s under the terms of the concession.

NBTC secretary general Takorn Tantasit held another press conference stating that the auction would be on 21 November with the 900-MHz auction on 15 December. Obviously he forgot to send his commissioner Pravit a note about it.

Then there is the minor detail about how the cabinet is involved with spectrum reallocation - under the current frequency act the telecom regulator is independent and reports only to the senate, not the executive branch of government - so why would or could the cabinet approve a spectrum reallocation to begin with?

Sometimes you wonder if you are losing your mind when covering telecom news in Thailand with so many conflicting statements from all the grown-ups out there. But at least from the TCT birthday bash, I know I am not alone in feeling confused. We will know what the game plan is when the auction finally happens.

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