Still stuck in neutral

Just when you thought that a pathetic, wink-and-nudge auction would at least give your spiffy smartphone the 3G network it deserves, the spoilsports came back to fight any chance that it will happen.

The Oct 16 auction of broadcast spectrum has failed to impress. While critics have poked the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) in various ways, the allegations by opposing voices boils down to this - AIS, Dtac and TrueMove paid too low a price for valuable bandwidth in a sweetheart sale arranged by the NBTC.

But this is far from a universal opinion; there has been no sign of public outrage, but the seed of suspicion and distrust has taken root and sprouted.

The commission tried to take the offensive against all critics in this front-page dispute. NBTC chairman Thares Punsri declared that the group has the sole legal right to declare the auction valid - which it intends to do. And if there are questions about possible flaws in the auction, the NBTC will investigate, consider and decide the matter - none of that outside interference, thanks.

Good luck with that.

Throughout the week, critics were almost fighting over who would get to criticise, look into, charge, harass or otherwise upset the 3G apple-cart.

And the NBTC managed to appear unsure of itself. It issued a statement that it intends to order the Big Three mobile phone carriers to reduce calling rates on the 20th century 2G networks by at least 15% before it stamps the auction results as ''done deal''.

The two most vocal and influential outside critics were Somkiat Tangkitvanich, head of the influential Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) think-tank, and Klanarong Chantik, spokesman for the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

Mr Somkiat took the high road of ethical indignation. He called the auction a ''fraud'' and a set-up, with three companies bidding barely above the reserve prices for three parts of the spectrum.

The NACC has the big stick, however. Mr Klanarong wondered if maybe there was some sort of collusion - among the Big Three, and between them and the NBTC. He didn't allege that, mind you, but only wondered aloud if it were possible.

So for starters, the NACC will look into a report by anti-government senators that the auction could have bypassed best practices on fair and genuine competition.

Consumer groups have been mostly silent since the auction. On one hand, they mistrust the process as much as anyone. On the other, however, the auction could actually help consumers by allowing decent prices for users once the networks are up and running. The NBTC stressed it would mandate affordable rates for 3G service, but failed to win any important support from consumer-protection organisations.

The government was silent, as it has been all along.

No problem. It only means that 60 million-plus phone owners and the country's reputation remain stuck in a different century than its neighbours and the rest of the world. Waiting for 3G in Thailand has come to be the normal state of affairs.