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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs           29   July  2011

Thailand goes 3G as government dawdles

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Advanced Info Service, Thailand's largest mobile operator, has started commercial 3G wireless broadband services as part of its 10-billion-baht (US$336 million) network expansion this year.

The 3G services - running on HSPA, Edge plus and WiFi systems - will be available initially in Bangkok and nine major areas: Chiang Mai, Chon Buri, Hat Yai in Songkhla, Phuket, Cha-am in Phetchaburi, Hua Hin and Pranburi in Prachuap Khiri Khan, Nakhon Ratchasima, Chiang Rai and Nakhon Pathom.

Although AIS and second-ranked DTAC offer commercial 3G service by upgrading their existing 2G technologies to 3G high-speed packet access (HSPA), questions remain about the legality of doing so under their existing concessions granted by the state telecom enterprises.

Some lawyers maintain that operators would be breaching their existing concessions, which permit them to offer only 2G digital cellular service.

AIS chief executive Wichian Mektrakarn said the company needed to move ahead because no one knew if or when the government will attempt to stage an auction for commercial 3G licences on the international-standard 2100 Megahertz frequency.

A planned licence auction collapsed last year after the state telecoms successfully challenged the legal authority of the regulator to issue licences.

"[3G on the 900 MHz frequency] is our best option now. It was an upgrade from the existing network, not the launch of a new brand or a new service," he said.

Mr. Wichian reiterated that AIS was not breaching its 2G concession, which permits private operators to develop their networks, even though there are no details on new services or technology.

DTAC recently announced a commercial launch of 3G services in Bangkok in mid-August despite lacking approval from its concession owner CAT Telecom.

AIS has earmarked 10 billion baht for network expansion this year. Of the total, 2.5 billion is for 3G network upgrades with the remainder for Edge and WiFi network expansion.

Network speeds for AIS's 3G services will vary depending on where customers are located and the tariff package. With the 3G HSPA network, it could offer download speeds of up to 21 Mbps, while the Edge Plus network will have download speed capability of 296 Kbps.

Mr. Wichian said AIS did not have a revenue target for 3G service, noting the offering was to maintain its leadership in the mobile market with its 32 million customers, a 54.5% share. "We're still determined to participate in the licence auction on 2100 MHz," he said, adding AIS could not provide full 3G services on the existing frequency.

AIS's 3G commercial options will be available to both prepaid and postpaid customers. Subscribers do not need to change SIM cards as they will be automatically upgraded.

Customers using 3G-capable handsets will be allowed to sign up for the 3G services under various tariff plans.

AIS's 3G data tariff plans start from 350 baht (US$12) per month to use 1 GB of 3G and Edge Plus services, and 2 GB of 3G and Edge plus service plus unlimited WiFi is 550 baht a month.

The rates increase to 799 baht per month for all unlimited services or 899 baht for all 3G services plus 10 e-magazines for three months.

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