Could 2010 be the year that the Thai telecommunications market finally overcomes the many obstacles placed in the way of the proliferation of high-speed multimedia services? This question could be answered very soon as the government appears to be keen to fast-track the appointment of members to the board of the national regulatory authority, whose primary mandate would be to allow independent operators into the 3G market. However, there are still a number of thorny issues that need to be addressed before 3G licensing can go ahead.
The most urgent of these would be the disputes between fixed-line and mobile network concessionholders, such as AIS, DTAC and True, regarding the early termination of their concessions, the oldest of which are to run until 2013. Although the concessionaires and their state-owned incumbent partners TOT plc and CAT Telecom are keen to complete the winding-up deals at the earliest opportunity, they disagree wildly on the value of their networks and remaining terms. The regulator – which still has to enter operation despite having been created more than six years ago – cannot introduce a new licensing regime until the old-style concessions are replaced. In recent months, CAT Telecom has been buying out its partners, or allowing its partners to buy it out of various value-added services joint ventures, and is reported to have agreed to buy out Hutchison Telecom’s stake in its mobile joint venture, so the signs are hopeful that the other players will follow suit.
TOT finally launched its 3G network in December 2009, albeit through a number of service providers, and, with the prospect of the government starting the 3G licensing procedure in Q110 looking ever more unlikely, AIS and DTAC have had to turn to TOT and CAT for 3G access. At the same time, DTAC has also been utilising its vacant analogue cellular spectrum to provide high-speed wireless data services to a fast-growing base of smartphone users. Although ‘proper’ 3G services are conspicuous by their absence, 3G-like services are proving popular with owners of iPhones and BlackBerrys.Fourth quarter results from AIS and DTAC had been published at the time of writing; these showed a marked improvement in subscriber growth and traffic volumes, led by rising data service usage.
ARPUs also rose significantly, suggesting that consumer confidence has returned to a market blighted by economic instability and the impact on foreign tourism from a fresh outbreak of swine flu. Nevertheless, progress in 2009 as a whole appears to have been rather slower than expected, and we have, therefore, elected to rein in our forecasts for total mobile subscriber numbers. With no new developments on the 3G licensing progress, we have not needed to revise our 3G subscriber forecasts this quarter. Other than Jasmine International’s decision to take full control of Triple T Broadband in Q309 – which would leave fixed-line operator TT&T out in the cold – and an intensification in pricing competition for broadband services, there have been few real developments in the fixed-line and broadband sectors. We have, therefore, not revised our forecasts in these fields.