Monday, September 20, 2010

Thailand - The collapse of the 3G auctions exposes the political mess that lies behind the facade of competing operators

[bangkok post] The collapse of a long-awaited attempt to bring Thailand into the 3G era has left telecom operators, consumers and investors wondering whether any solutions exist to clear the legal, regulatory and political confusion that plagues the country's telecommunications industry.

Online social networks were active over the weekend as outlets to vent dismay over the loss of opportunity to take advantage of faster communication and its economic and social benefits.

"CAT stands for ‘Cancel All Technology'," commented one Twitter user.

Others were less polite to the state telecom enterprise, which last week won Central Administrative Court approval for an injunction to halt the 3G licence auction that was to have begun today in Pran Buri.

All eyes turned to CAT president Jirayuth Roongsrithong, who made the case in court for the injunction. Some asked why CAT had waited until the last minute to make its move.

"This is a politically motivated game. The government including the ICT Ministry was behind the attempt to disrupt the 3G auction by using the CAT Telecom and TOT executives," said one industry executive who asked not to be named.

The boards of the two state telecom enterprises are made up mostly of people close to politicians. Curiously, they had previously avoided pursuing legal action against the National Telecommunications Commission, even though CAT and TOT faced big losses if 3G went ahead and operators shifted customers from the 2G networks that bring the state telecoms billions of baht in revenue sharing payments.

Both Mr Jirayuth and TOT president Varut Suvakorn say they had raised the issue many times with their boards, but directors said it was up to management to make the decision. The lack of clear board support for a legal challenge put management in a difficult position.

Mr Jirayuth acknowledged, though, that the success of a legal challenge would be reflected in his performance evaluation.

Djitt Laowattana, a TOT board director, said it was reluctant to appear to be in conflict with another state agency, in this case the NTC.

Meanwhile, the government appears to have been playing a double game, said another industry source. On the one hand, it was expressing its enthusiasm for 3G. On the other, it provided no direction to the NTC, formed under the defunct 1997 Constitution, on how to handle the legal challenges.

Others have pointed to the current government's push to convert existing 2G mobile-phone concessions and replace them with 15-year licences to create fairness across the industry. Some in the government believe 3G cannot or should not happen until 2G issues are resolved.

Anant Worathitipong, vice-chairman of the Senate science, technology and communication committee, said it could be a year before the NTC's successor, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), is established. The NBTC would then be in charge of the 3G process.

Anuparb Thiralarp, an independent telecom expert, said the court ruling "came as no surprise" because under the Constitution the NTC had no authority to allocate frequency spectrum.

He also thinks the ruling could be a blessing in disguise for the industry, because it would bring new urgency to redefining regulations and restructuring the sector. "It would be a disaster if the auction goes ahead now without clear direction and justification," he said.

Mr Anuparb said the NTC had so far spent at least 80 million baht promoting 3G, focusing mainly on the benefits of the technology and services. But in his view the regulator has failed to adequately promote the expansion of nationwide telecom infrastructure and the importance of narrowing the digital divide.

3G snag a strong signal - Sector in desperate need of reform

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