ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Freshly licensed Thai telcos embark on new era
While the outcome was criticised by many parties, the historic spectrum auction on October 16 has also set in motion the auctions of other bands in the years to come, ranging from 1,800MHz and 900MHz to 850MHz.
If the 2.1GHz licence holders - Advanced Wireless Network (AWN) of Advanced Info Service (AIS); DTAC Network (DTN) of Total Access Communication (DTAC); and Real Future of True Corp - can honour their commitments to service quality, mobile users will get new choices for decent wireless broadband service. The operators are all expected to kick off their service in major cities by the second quarter of next year.
Their executives said they would not rush to introduce the service until they can ensure that they are of the best quality. They have already asked for 20 million phone numbers with the 091 prefix to provide the service during the first year. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) is considering the requests.
The three operators' networks are required to cover 50 per cent of the population within the first two years and 80 per cent within four years. The licence holders' parents will also deploy their existing huge bandwidth to back up the 2.1GHz service offerings of their subsidiaries, especially during peak data consumption on the 2.1GHz networks.
Settapong Malisuwan, chairman of the NBTC's telecom committee, often compares the availability of 2.1GHz spectrum slots to the expansion of congested highways to facilitate traffic flow.
Industry players hailed the official awarding of the 2.1GHz licences on December 11 as a beacon of hope for the telecom industry after years of prolonged regulatory uncertainty. Now with the precious licences in their hands, the private telecom operators and their shareholders are assured that they will stay in business after their concessions expire.
The licensing also marks a new era when the telecom operators will compete on an equal footing under the NBTC's regulatory oversight. The 3G technology will let them provide higher value-added services to boost their revenues to offset the decline in voice revenue.
Sales of some 15 million handsets, of which 85 per cent will be smartphones, are expected to double the mobile broadband service market to 14 billion baht (US$457 million) next year.
Companies from banks to media houses are also eager to ride on the new 3G trend to market their products and services and expand their customer bases. Next year is expected to see about 20 million 3G mobile-phone subscribers on all platforms, from 850MHz to 900MHz and 2.1GHz, against about 6 million this year.
Supot Tiarawut, chairman of Mobile Technology for Thailand, says the wide availability of 3G would help spur the growth of e-commerce and mobile applications and also drive the machine-to-machine scenario, as mobile devices can always stay connected and communicate back to the network.
The 2.1GHz licensing has also sparked a fresh round of massive investment to deploy networks and equipment. AIS has set a preliminary budget of 13 billion baht for AWN's first phase, while True has budgeted Bt8 billion for Real Future's first-phase investment plus working capital. DTN will spend Bt25 billion on the build-up during the first three years.
A telecom analyst expects the EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortisation) margin of these three incumbent operators to shrink first in 2013, due to higher capital and marketing expenditures, before recovering on the regulatory cost-savings gain in 2014. The state concession fees cost them about 25 per cent of their gross revenue. The total 3G-licence fee is 5.75 per cent of a licence holder's gross revenue.
But the regulatory cost savings will materialise only when they can migrate enough 2G subscribers to the 2.1GHz networks. Jon Eddy Abdullah, CEO of DTAC, estimates that half of DTAC's more than 23 million subscribers would switch to DTN within the first year of the network rollout.
However, the NBTC has yet to issue many key regulations, such as for network infrastructure sharing and the network interconnection charge.
The public next year will also closely watch to see if the NBTC can keep its much-trumpeted commitment to enforce key requirements attached in the licences of these 3G service providers. One condition is to set voice and data service tariffs at a rate 15-per-cent lower than the average fees of all operators in the market on December 7. The NBTC is formulating this benchmark tariff for the three companies.
NBTC member Prawit Leesatapornwongsa said the firms must also follow the regulations for the standard mobile-phone service contract, which prohibit telecom operators from setting a validity period for their prepaid service.
The watchdog faces another daunting task next year - reclaiming the 1,800MHz bands from CAT Telecom for auction. The time is ripe. The 1,800MHz concessions granted by CAT to TrueMove and Digital Phone Co (DPC) will end next September and the spectra will be returned for reallocation by the watchdog to provide 4G cellular service. However, after the TrueMove and DPC concessions end, CAT wants to keep the 1,800MHz band of TrueMove to continue to serve TrueMove's 17 million subscribers and might return the band of DPC to the NBTC.
The watchdog in February allowed private telecom operators to test the 4G service with CAT and TOT when it announced that 4G will be coming next after the auction of the 2.1GHz licences.
The NBTC's panel is expected to conclude next month the plan to deal with the end of the TrueMove-DPC concessions to prevent any inconvenience to subscribers during the transition, and will submit its conclusion for the telecom committee's consideration in February.
Takorn Tantasit, secretary-general of the NBTC, said that in April he would propose the telecom committee appoint the panel to draw up the 1,800MHz-spectrum auction.
Many parties will closely monitor the watchdog's formulation of the 1,800MHz auction terms. Its 2.1GHz auction terms and the bid outcome were criticised by scholars and Finance Ministry officials for allowing bidders to grab the prized airwaves without meaningful competition in the bidding - a charge the NBTC fiercely denies.
Sigve Brekke, head of Telenor Asia, said that for the 4G auction, the NBTC should ensure that barriers to participating in the bidding are removed to attract more bidders.
Norway's Telenor is DTAC's strategic partner.
"Further, I believe that a consultation process with stakeholders should be held in order to evaluate if more frequencies should be released in the 4G auction, as Thailand currently has under-utilised bands that could be included in the auction. A transparent process where these issues are addressed will be the fastest route for consumers to get additional benefits from 4G services," he said.
"Several delays have made Thailand wait a long time for 3G, and I have no doubt that the country is ready for both 3G and 4G," he said.
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