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Tuesday, 21 September 2010

An article that gets at the heart of what's wrong with Thailand

I had to reprint this article in full for it perfectly illustrates all that's fundamentally wrong with Thailand as a nation. When even poor countries like Vietnam and Laos have 3G phone capabilities, it's unbelievable that Thailand hasn't and is unlikely to have for at least anther 6 months to a year. Why? Because the government, the regulators, and some smaller interest groups are squabbling over the spoils and unable to decide who will get the biggest slice of the cake when the licenses are eventually awarded. They seem to care not a jot about the consumer who they are supposed to be serving and seem unable to realise that most other countries are now on 4G phones. This is a classic case of a lack of leadership by the government, selfishness by the operators themselves, and corruption by the regulators.

Here's the article in full as it's written by a Thai and so spot on about the inability of Thais to get even the simplest legislation passed.

We don't trust each other to do even the simplest thing - by Tulsathit Taptim (Originally published in The Nation)

"I just want a faster Internet, for crying out loud. Is that too much to ask? From the way things are going, it most likely is. But I still don't get it anyway. We could understand it when, 15 years or so ago, people said Bangkok could not have a subway system because the soil was too soft. That the presumption turned out to be untrue I can live with. That Bangkok wasted years on the land subsidence fear is forgivable.

Not this time. Thailand is missing the 3G bandwagon not because of national security concerns, or lack of expertise, or lack of money. We have become an international laughing stock simply because having 3G at a particular time would benefit some people and make others lose out. Technological advancement in our country has been too intertwined with politics, and only our politics says how, where and when we should proceed. And I'm mad.

This has become a bad soap opera featuring greed, selfishness, jealousy and cheap tricks. And the next time I hear the term "public interest" in the debate, I may consider committing a massacre. The unionists are just worried about themselves, the executives about how the political winds will blow, and the politicians about who gets what. The judges look like a befuddled referee in a dirty and cunning football game.

Mind you, telecom liberalisation was a stipulation in the 1997 Constitution. I'm fairly confident that if you had visited Laos or Vietnam in that year carrying a low-end mobile phone, you would have been treated like a demi-god. If you visit either country today, just pretend you're from Taiwan or Hong Kong. That's the best advice I can give.

Thirteen bloody years later and we are still arguing over who has the authority. Every time we took a little step forward, we took two huge steps backward. Two great national traits have held everything hostage - blind selfishness and blind envy. When it came to the subject of a "regulatory body", three things would happen: First, one group would try to block its establishment, and if that failed, this group and other groups would try to put their men on the board and seize control, leaving those who missed the boat to behave like a jealous female villain in a TV drama.

Unlike the subway debate, nobody has even tried to make the 3G impasse sound remotely scientific. Even ethical arguments smack of nasty self-interest. Consumers are the last thing on the minds of the people who can dictate the future course of the Thai telecom industry. Politicians are afraid to lose power to the regulatory body. Mobile phone companies will go for the cheapest investment (which is fair enough) and whatever system will continue to allow them to bleed customers dry. Government enterprises have been harping on about the public interest while in fact standing in the way of faster and better digital services for Thai people.

How did our Southeast Asian neighbours manage to leave us in their dust when it comes to 3G? Simple: because it is simple. This is not a nuclear or space programme that has to navigate different public sentiments, international politics, or funding or human resource difficulties. The technology is there, and so is the public consensus. The question is so basic: How can we do it transparently while making it fair to both investors and consumers?

It has taken us 13 years to get to nowhere. A simple agenda has been bogged down by the corrupt nature of our country. Instead of being able to use technology to innovate, create and thus decentralise wealth, 3G has become a name associated with everything counter-productive, including what has come to characterise the nation - double plays.

Ordinary people just want better phone signals, faster downloads and cheaper Internet access. 3G can give us that and much more, and we know who stands between us and what we want. If it had really been about doing it the right way, we would have known. If the government had been sincere, we would have felt it. If the labour unions had really cared about consumers, why are we angry at them?

Some people talk about the will of the Constitution. Don't get me started. The NBTC requirement is just the charter writers' way of saying why we should liberalise the telecom sector for consumers' benefits, and how we should do it. It's certainly not their will to have Thais drooling over what neighbouring countries have while the same old vested interest groups here keep on fighting and fighting and fighting."

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