Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha granted mobile operators extensions for paying their spectrum licensing fees, The Nation reported, an apparent bid to drum up interest in a much-delayed 700MHz spectrum auction.

Using a special power available under the interim constitution, he extended the payment terms from four annual installments to ten equal payments. AIS and True Move were originally required to make their final THB60 billion ($1.9 billion) payments for their 900MHz spectrum licences in 2020, while dtac’s last payment of THB30 billion was due in 2022.

The operators, however, are then required to participate in a 700MHz spectrum auction planned for later this year. True Move previously indicated it does not plan to take part in the sale.

Included in the order is an option for digital TV broadcasters to exit the market by returning their licences to the broadcast regulator, The Nation said, adding the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) expects up to four comanies to do so.

Relief requested
In 2018 NBTC asked the prime minister to ease the 4G licence payment terms of AIS and True Move by giving them five-year extensions to pay for 900MHz spectrum.

The proposal drew sharp criticism and prompted dtac to request a similar extension in the next 900MHz spectrum auction.

AIS and True Move had pushed for extensions on their 900MHz licences since 2017 and indicated they would not be able to join future auctions, specifically the sale of 5G spectrum, due to their high debt burdens.

Dtac acquired 10MHz of 900MHz spectrum for THB38 billion in an uncontested auction in October 2018. The payment terms were unchanged from 2016 when AIS and True Move obtained their licences.

Somkiat Tangkitvanich, president of the Thailand Development and Research Institute, criticised the order, Bangkok Post reported.

He argued the move “helped the operators at the expense of the public” and wasn’t necessary as the operators are profitable, citing a forecast estimating each operator would reap a THB8 billion benefit as a result.