Thai junta’s dangerous steps to neuter telecoms regulator

Thai junta’s dangerous steps to neuter telecoms regulator

12 JAN 2015

NEW BLOG: Thailand’s cabinet last week approved eight draft bills that are intended to transform the country’s economy – which has spluttered since the coup last May – into a “digital” economy.

The new measures, covering everything from cyber security and computer crimes to electronic transactions and personal privacy, will restructure the ICT Ministry and related agencies such as state-run TOT and CAT Telecom, as well as the telecoms regulator. One of the stated goals is to reduce duplication among state-run organisations.

One of the more significant changes, which will go into effect once the National Legislative Assembly approves the drafts (expected by April), is that the ICT Ministry will become the Digital Economy and Society Ministry.

But by far the most significant change, which comes as no surprise, is that the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) will cease to be an independent regulator and will come under the Digital Economy Policy Committee, which is chaired by the prime minister, with the deputy prime minister as vice chairman supervising economic affairs.

The ICT Ministry suggested at the end of the year that the committee be given responsibility for determining the amount of spectrum and the rules for the upcoming 4G auction.

The downgrade of the regulator means the government will take over managing the auction funds and licensing fees, which the NBTC currently handles. Going forwards, it will only oversee the allocation of spectrum and govern competition in the telecoms and broadcasting industries.

Half of the telecoms licence fees will now go to a newly-created digital economy development fund, which the government said is essential to developing the country’s telecoms infrastructure.

But the military government’s plans go far beyond restructuring the country’s byzantine bureaucracy.

Prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has said that to move towards a digital economy Thailand needs to develop a telecoms infrastructure in the form of a national broadband backbone, which would connect with the international gateway.

A month ago the government said it plans to establish a national backbone holding company to own and operate all of the country’s fibre and tower assets. The holding company, which would have a fibre unit and a tower business, would operate all existing telecoms networks and generate revenue by renting the assets to private operators.

In addition, the government has said it needs to establish a centralised datacentre to collect all types of information and “provide public services”, and presumably keep a close watch on all types of online communications.

No need for court order
Among the eight drafts was the cyber security bill that gives a Cyber Security Commission, headed by the prime minister, the authority to require the country’s communications service providers to give it access to all types of digital information – all without a court order, which is currently required.

Last week the country’s ISPs were given the authority to monitor and block web pages that threaten national security or criticise the monarchy without having to seek approval from authorities, the Bangkok Post reported. Previously a court order, requested by the police, was required to block content.

The real intention of the raft of proposed bills, beyond establishing a vague foundation for digital economic development, is no doubt to roll back the clock and give the government direct control of the regulator’s responsibilities, which the junta feels it has neglected, and allow a merged TOT-CAT to regain more control of the telecoms sector.

The government has made it clear it doesn’t think private mobile operators are always serving the public interest and properly looking after national security (the ICT minister has suggested that a portion of spectrum to be auctioned be reserved for the country’s state-owned operators so they can fulfil those functions).

The return to a dominant state-run organisation would certainly make surveillance simpler, but – based on the financial performance of CAT and TOT, and the quality of services they provide – it’s not a recipe for revitalising the economy with a digital push or success in the 4G era.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.


Joseph Waring

Joseph Waring joins Mobile World Live as the Asia editor for its new Asia channel. Before joining the GSMA, Joseph was group editor for Telecom Asia for more than ten years. In addition to writing features, news and blogs, he...

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