Thursday, January 01, 2009

Thailand - 3G

Can new government sort out Thai 3G?

The other day I came across someone who gave me yet another perspective on the 3G situation in Thailand (or lack, thereof) and why it seems to be in the interests of the powers that be to delay 3G as long as possible so that while businesses, the economy and techy geeks like us suffer and wait in purgatory for the (data) gates to open, a small minority of us are kept happy.

No, that small minority is not the shareholders of certain telcos, but rather then 20,000 odd employees of TOT and CAT which would probably find themselves out of a job if the 2.1GHz 3G licenses are issued. This is because under the status quo, 30 percent of all revenue from the telcos goes either to TOT (AIS) or CAT (Dtac, True and Hutch). That is 30 percent of revenues, not profits, mind you.

Thus, the day the National Telecommunications Commission issues the 2.1GHz licenses, that will be the death certificate for TOT and CAT as the telcos will quickly do everything they can to migrate from the current 900/1,800MHz concessions to 2.1GHz so that they can stop paying the concession fee, if for no other reason.

This, in turn, has put a brake on the argument that 3G is needed to bridge the digital divide. The argument is that if true 2.1GHz 3G licenses are issued, the telcos will not be worrying about connecting a remote school in the middle of nowhere to the Internet, nor even on 3G high speed data services, but simply at providing 3G voice and phasing out their current networks.

Putting over 20,000 state enterprise employees out of work will also be a hugely unpopular move, but I often say that CAT and TOT have no one to blame but themselves. They have, over the years, become fat and complacent on their 30 percent revenue cuts and few people in the organization knows much about telco business these days.

In the distant past, telephone lines were provided by the Post and Telegraph Department itself. But the PTD got bogged down in red tape and gave the work out to new state enterprises, the Telephone Organization of Thailand and the Communications Authority of Thailand, to install on its behalf.

Ironically, after time, TOT and CAT also became bogged down by bureaucratic red tape, and when the digital revolution arrived they could not handle the networks themselves and had to sub-sub-contract their sub-contract to do it, hence the rise of the telcos we know and love (and loathe) today.

Only problem was, since they were a concessionaire themselves from the PTD, they could not sub-let their concession, hence a convoluted joint-investment agreement was drafted to circumvent the rules.

Today, the PTD is now the NTC (or, more precisely, the PTD is the NTC secretariat and the NTC is senate-appointed) and the NTC is now looking to give out concessions directly, leaving CAT and TOT out in the cold.

Let me go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps that it is now time to put these two dinosaurs to sleep, end this mess and allow for rational re-allocation of the frequency bands. 850/900 has a place especially for rural access where density is low and distances are vast. Why then, should we be stuck with a system that rewards rich city dwellers with cheap 3G (when 2.1GHz comes) and penalizes poor people on 850/900 with a 30 percent higher bill due to the revenue share model? A rational re-think is in order.

Politically, any government that talks about putting 20,000 state employees out of a job would probably not last long, but I am sure they can be transferred to other uses, such as digging Keynesian holes and then filling them up again.

Might I humbly suggest that the new Democrat administration look into rationalizing this mess?

Whilst on the topic of politics, might I also suggest to whoever will be ICT Minister to take a deep breath and look at the original purpose of the MICT, rather than what it has become.

Asking for budget to build Internet cafes is not its raison d'etre. Nor is clinging to an antiquated concession system. Rather it is about leapfrogging years of development, putting in place data and process standards and rationalizing IT across government.

Today, we are still building silos, projects belong to the Revenue Department or the Bureau of Registration Administration. The problem is that the Revenue Department's systems will work for the benefit of the Ministry of Finance and Bora's for the Ministry of Interior. Rather, a citizen-oriented approach should break down these silos and processes so they can be rearranged in an optimal way that makes the citizen's life easier, not the minister's.

A case in point is Bora's citizen database. Today, webmasters must keep ID card information, but they have no way of verifying it as Bora answers to MOI, not to the MICT's cyber-inspector team. But if Bora's ID database were taken out of Bora and put to work for the greater good, MICT could create a service that logs and flags up exceptions such as fake or lost ID cards to make the cyber crime law at least make more sense.

Standard setting is also something that MICT needs to address. From government interoperability standards, metered-taxi standards or for Thai fonts, today Thailand is sleepwalking into an interoperability nightmare where some standards are de-facto standards from universities, some lie with the Ministry of Industry (Thai keyboard standards) and others (Thai fonts) lie somewhere in limbo. Remember how universities had to ask for examples of taxi meters to reverse engineer when the price changed and they had to be reprogrammed? Things like that could be avoided with some common sense.

There are many things that need doing and sorting out. We had one chance, after the coup and with Minister Sitthichai. However, when I asked him if he would be putting communications first ahead of IT or IT first, he said that it would of course be communications as the money involved is far greater.

The telecommunications industry may be bigger today, with CAT and TOT. But the potential in the future is clearly with tech, not telco. I hope Thailand gets a minister that sees the potential of IT and is willing to put it where it belongs on the national agenda, rather than one who continues to milk the status quo for what it's worth

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