Thai telecom - carnal politics at its worst

Don Sambandaraksa
29 Apr 2011

There have been many attempts to try and make sense of the telco industry in Thailand; why state telco and concession holder CAT allowed TrueMove to take over Hutch and launch an HSPA 3G network and why fellow state telco TOT has been so slow in signing off the 3G expansion project bid that was won by a consortium of Nokia-Siemens and Huawei.

In the TOT case in particular, the board refused to sign off the project until a few days ago after something happened under the radar.

Both projects could land both state enterprise boards in deep trouble for irregularities. The CAT decision seems a blatant breach of the Constitution that calls for a moratorium on frequency reallocation until the NBTC is up and running, not to mention tilting the playing field in favour of TrueMove (or was it TrueMove H, or was it RealMove? And why have so many names at all?)

The TOT decision is bizarre in that ZTE was kicked out for offering too much network capacity in the technical round and was not allowed to bid. If ZTE wants to offer more capacity in an auction, what is to stop them? Well, the technical guys at TOT, that's who.

While many analysts have been left scratching their heads, the answer to everything is simple. It is an election year.

This is not about technology. This is not public policy. This is raw, carnal, money politics at its worst.

Someone is cashing in to raise funds for the election, plain and simple. Nobody cares about rule of law, due process, fair and level playing fields or any other concept that is remotely civilised. It is about money and the need for money in the run-up to the elections.

DTAC almost launched its own 3G network alongside fellow CAT concessionaire TrueMove. Almost. The clincher was that in order to be given CAT's blessing to do so, they would have to sign away their right to sue CAT in the future. DTAC's new CEO obviously has the guts to know enough is enough and pushed back, suing CAT in the administrative court to halt the TrueMove deal.

Some in DTAC say that the company only has to tell CAT that it is performing an in-band migration network upgrade rather than ask for permission. CAT, in its infinite wisdom, has neither said yes or no and is taking its time, five years and counting, to decide. That is regulation by running the clock out.

TrueMove/RealMove/TrueMove H (pick one, will you?) hit back, calling a press conference and painting itself as the kind, caring face of a Thai minnow battling for national pride and the rights of the poor one million Hutch users against the evil Telenorwegians.

Colourful rhetoric perhaps, but it sidesteps the question of True gaining a backdoor de-facto concession. Nor does it address the issue of how granting RealMove rights to do commercial 3G implicitly also allows TrueMove’s test network, on a different part of the 850 spectrum, to go commercial; spectrum that DTAC claims is overlapping 2.5 MHz of its old 1G AMPS network.

And where is the regulator, the valiant enlightened seven great ones (as they were coined by media) of the National Telecommunications Commission? One key role of a regulator is to guard industry from short-term politics, something they are obviously not doing. NTC Commissioner Natee Sukonrat has gone on record saying that 850 MHz an internal matter between CAT and its concessionaires.

It is an election year, people. Welcome to Thailand.

Don Sambandaraksa is a former reporter with the Bangkok Post. He now writes for the tech blog Amitiae

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