Thailand’s largest mobile network operator by subscribers, Advanced Info Service (AIS), today revealed that it will partner state-owned telco TOT to launch 2100MHz 3G services in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chonburi and Hua Hin on 1 February, Reuters reports, quoting AIS Chief Executive Wichien Mektrakarn. The decision was prompted by the likelihood of continuing delays to the country’s 3G licensing process, currently ensnared in government red tape. According to TeleGeography’s GlobalComms database, TOT operates Thailand’s only 2100MHz W-CDMA/HSPA network, having launched services in December 2009 in the Bangkok area via third-party mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), whilst AIS operates a limited capacity W-CDMA/HSPA service using UMTS 900MHz technology in Chiang Mai (launched May 2008), central Bangkok (December 2008) and Chon Buri (January 2009).
In June 2009 AIS suspended indefinitely any further UMTS-900 expansion plans, saying it would prefer to wait for 2100MHz licences to be issued. The following month AIS indicated that it would allow TOT to use some of its 12,000 GSM base station sites to quicken the latter’s plans to expand 3G services across the country within the next two years. The company said it was ready to co-operate since it operated under a build-transfer-operate (BTO) concession with TOT.
The Bangkok Post quoted the AIS president today as saying he believed the 3G licence auction could be delayed for ‘at least two years’ – much longer than the few months previously mooted – because it was unclear how long it will take for the new board of the regulator, the National Telecoms Commission, to resume work. Wichien said he was unsure whether four new members would be approved or even whether a new full seven-member board would go ahead with an auction. Natee Sukolrat, one of the nominees, is currently under investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Wichien confirmed that AIS was ready to cooperate with TOT, whether it be a partnership involving revenue sharing, fixed fees, or marketing partnership similar to the relationship between CDMA partners Hutchison Telecom International (HTIL) and TOT’s sister state-run telco CAT Telecom. ‘We need to do something because we cannot wait that long for 3G licences on 2.1GHz,’ he declared.
Last week, both the Thai attorney general and the lawyers’ association clouded the 3G issue further by insisting that the current NTC board could not hold a 3G auction and it should await a new law to define its role and responsibility to prevent a recurrence of previous government controversies, such as that surrounding the privatisation of EGAT, the national power utility. Previously, the government has put obstacles in the way of the auction by declaring that an overhaul of 2G licensing is necessary before 3G concessions can be issued to privately-run operators outside of the BTO framework.