3G Licensing in Thailand

These past few months, I have been bombarded with questions and concerns from foreign investors and business partners in regard to the current status and future of 3G in Thailand. To recapitulate, the country has failed twice in its endeavors to grant 3G licenses during the past 2 years. Both attempts by the now defunct National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) faced legal uncertainties resulting from dissimilarities between two versions of the constitution and lawsuits brought on by other state-owned enterprises. The current landscape of telecommunication in Thailand has turned into legal land mines such that any attempt to move forward will always possess risks. Now that current operators have worked within the system to offer 3G with existing 2G spectrums, academics and various organizations are now crying foul play. No real attempts have been made to resolve the broken system, and political will as well as public opinion is largely unaware of ICT and the positive effects it can have upon the country. The closest thing to a real attempt was the rushed passing of National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission Law, which empowers a new entity, National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NTBC), to grant 3G licenses with less legal risks. However, NTBC would not be elected until the end of the year, and the rushed passing of the law introduced new destructive problems to the industry. Attempts to amend problematic clauses will be possible in few years.

Barring legal risks, the last attempt by NTC would have been ideal for the industry and the country as a whole. It would have granted three 3G licenses at 2,100 MHz with 15 MHz spectrum allocations. Despite small differences in winning bid prices, it would have been the great equalizer to the long-standing inequality resulting from concessions. It would also require each operator to reach 80% population coverage in 4 years, essentially ending the Digital Divide problem in one fell swoop.

The official process for electing NTBC has begun. One can only hope it would not face legal challenges as National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which was never successfully established and succumbed twice to legal challenges. Should we be lucky, NTBC may resume the 3G licensing process sometime next year. One should also hope that the conditions would be fair and beneficial as set forth by NTC, NTBC's predecessor.

Amidst uncertainties, existing operators are working within the system to offer 3G with existing 2G spectrums to not afford further delays. AIS is offering 3G at 900 MHz, while DTAC and TrueMove are offering 3G at 850 MHz. Conditions are not ideal. The 2,100 MHz by NTC would have been better. Complications from the concessions would remain unresolved. Yet, it is the country's earliest chance at achieving nationwide 3G coverage. Currently, TrueMove offers 3G at 850 MHz covering most of Bangkok. The recent deal with Hutchinson and Cat would facilitate nationwide coverage by TrueMove. AIS and DTAC, on the other hand, are in nascent stages despite their attempt at launching iPhones.

Despite heroic efforts by operators, it is a shocking surprise that some academics and organizations are citing unfair treatments by the ruling government. One can never ascertain the true intention of these accusations. However, one can be certain that this is the closest Thailand has ever been to achieving nationwide 3G coverage. Unfortunately, the press has been so caught up in the political intrigues that the intrinsic value of 3G is long forgotten. Few locals are aware of how far Thailand has fallen behind its neighbors such as Singapore, Malaysia or even Vietnam in Internet penetration and other related competitiveness.

In all likelihood, the recent efforts by operators to offer 3G with existing 2G spectrum will proceed with certain turbulences. The country is on the right path to recovering from nearly a decade without any real ICT strategy. The election of NTBC and the 3G licensing process that follows will be interesting to follow. Whether the the benefits in going forward will outweigh the problems with the NTBC law will soon be judged.