As we wrap up 2014, Telecom Asia takes a look back at the telecoms stories that dominated the headlines on telecomasia.net this year. Highlights include: shake-ups in Thailand, green lights in Myanmar, the arrival of internet dial tone, the promise of Apple Pay, the strange saga of HKTV, the even stranger saga of net neutrality, and a whole lot of submarine cables.
Thailand’s post-coup telco shake-up
Thailand’s telecoms sector has always been susceptible to political instability. But May’s military coup, which saw the caretaker government ousted and replaced by a junta called National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has shaken up the sector with a number of proposed reforms designed to reestablish the power of incumbent state-owned telcos TOT Corp and CAT Telecom - not only as operators, but as regulators.
When the NCPO partly repealed the country’s 2007 constitution as part of the coup, that repeal included Article 47 calling for an independent telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, and Article 84(1) prohibiting the state from competing with the private sector.
Since then, the NCPO-controlled National Legislative Assembly has proposed that Thailand’s Frequency Allocation Act be redrawn in a way that eliminates the country’s independent regulator, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), which is already being investigated for corruption and waste. The NLA wants the NBTC’s powers to be given back to TOT and CAT Telecom.
Moreover, in early December, Thailand’s cabinet of ministers approved a state enterprise restructuring plan put forward by the new state enterprise superboard that focuses on the loss-making state enterprises. Part of that plan requires TOT and CAT Telecom to merge into a single entity, eliminate any redundant units and cut costs immediately by 10%. (See: “Thailand, China shaking up private telcos”)
The most immediate impact of all this activity has been on the spectrum allocation process. Auctions for 900-MHz and 1800-MHz spectrum were originally scheduled to take place in stages starting in August this year. But the NCPO ordered the auctions delayed by one year so the NBTC - which remains in charge of spectrum allocations for the time being - can rethink its processes for issuing spectrum. Private operators True Move and DPC were meanwhile given a one-year extension on their 1800-MHz holdings to give them more time to migrate their existing 2G users off the spectrum before it can be re-allocated.
Significantly, however, the removal of Article 84(1) from the constitution clears the way for TOT and CAT to participate in the spectrum auctions - a matter which is complicated further by Thailand’s concession licensing scheme. While those licenses are expiring, TOT and CAT have insisted the concession deals allow them to keep spectrum for their own use for another two years after they expire.
Meanwhile, the NCPO - like most military regimes - isn’t inviting open debate about any of its telecoms reform plans. In July it issued an order prohibiting all media, including online media, from criticizing the junta or any of its actions, and prohibiting broadcast media from interviewing anyone critical of the junta.
The previous month, Telenor and Dtac were forced to issue an apology to both the NCPO and NBTC for exposing a secret order to block Facebook access days after the coup. The apology came after a NBTC sub-board chairman said Dtac should be excluded from the upcoming spectrum auction (still scheduled for August at the time) for revealing the order.