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4G auction, digital TV voucher scheme on hold

Junta wants doubts regarding projects cleared

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has ordered the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to suspend four key projects, including the planned auction of 4G wireless broadband spectrum licences, and the distribution of subsidy vouchers for the purchase of digital TV set-top boxes, until some doubts regarding the projects are cleared, in order to ensure transparency.

At the same time, the NCPO order to the watchdog yesterday also instructed the NBTC to improve both the organisational structure and the regulations regarding its budget spending. Private telecom operators yesterday said they hoped the regulatory body could clear all doubts soon and give them the new licence auction timelines.

If the auction of new spectrum licences were to be delayed for a long time, this would mean some telecom operators would not be able to acquire more bandwidth to effectively serve the rising number of users.

The delay in the voucher distribution could affect the watchdog's intention to quickly usher in a digital TV era in the country.

The NBTC also needs to reallocate this 1,800MHz via auction to bid winners to serve the existing 1,800MHz users of TrueMove and Digital Phone Co (DPC), who have yet to migrate to other networks after the companies' state concessions ended last September. The NBTC has permitted TrueMove and DPC to continue using the 1,800MHz spectrum but only until September to serve customers who have yet to move to other networks.

On Monday, the NBTC sent details of the four projects to the NCPO for consideration. However, the papers were returned to the NBTC yesterday morning with notes from NCPO chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, instructing the watchdog to suspend the projects temporarily, pending a complete scrutiny by the junta.

NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tantasit said yesterday that he would submit this case to the NBTC board for consideration today.

He added that the telecom and broadcasting committees would clear all doubts in the projects with the NCPO. If the NCPO approves the projects after receiving the clarifications, the projects could go ahead as planned.

Projects in question

Takorn said only two out of these four projects are in question - the auction of two licences of the 1,800MHz spectrum and the planned giveaway of vouchers to all households to buy any of the following: a digital TV set-top box, a cable TV set-top box, a satellite TV set-top box, and a TV with digital TV function for digital TV programmes.

One clause of the 1,800MHz licence auction is that the NBTC will go ahead with the auction even if there are only one or two qualified bidders. This might risk attracting possible legal challenge by any parties arguing that the condition promotes low competition in the auction.

Regarding the distribution of free vouchers, there is still disagreement among parties if the NBTC should allow people to use vouchers to buy cable and satellite TV boxes, instead of only the digital TV set-top box and TV with digital TV function. Some also questioned if the Bt1,000 voucher price is appropriate.

Representatives of 12 digital TV channels on Monday submitted a the letter to the NBTC urging it to allow people to use vouchers to buy cable and satellite TV boxes, saying the satellite and cable TV operators are their rivals.

Regarding the NCPO's call to the NBTC to improve its organisational structure, Takorn said he did not want to interpret what the NCPO meant by it. He declined to confirm reports that the NCPO wanted to disband the NBTC.

Jon Eddy Abdullah, chief executive officer of Total Access Communication (DTAC), said he hoped the NBTC could soon clear all doubts regarding the projects and issue a new licence-auction timeline to telecom operators soon.

"We look forward to participating and we will support in any way to help the NBTC and the NCPO to bring more and faster 4G to Thailand," he added.

Advanced Info Service (AIS) chief executive officer Wichian Mektrakarn said private telecom operators could not do anything except wait.

AIS' share price yesterday closed at Bt222, down 3.06 per cent, while that of DTAC closed at Bt110.50, down 2.64 per cent. True's share price rose 10.92 per cent to close at Bt9.65.



Delayed projects

The NCPO has ordered the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to suspend four key projects until some doubts can be cleared. The projects are:

_ The auction of two licences of the 1,800MHz spectrum in August, with combined starting price of more than Bt23 billion

_ The auction of two licences of the 900MHz spectrum in November, with combined starting price of more than Bt19 billion

_ The distribution of free vouchers to households to buy digital TV set-top boxes in August, with voucher subsidy worth Bt25 billion

_ The planned auctions to provide Universal Services Obligation projects worth more than Bt20 billion


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