3G drama turns to farce

There is no shortage of innuendo and suspicion about the process that gave the three big mobile phone networks the right to claim 3G operating licences. But misgivings are not hard evidence.

If no provable charges emerge in the next few days that the Oct 16 auction of the 3G licences involved real law-breaking, the results should be certified so that the country can get on with installing and using a 3G network.

Senators are the latest to join the battle to keep the 3G service out of Thailand. Sen Paiboon Nititawan, a Group of 40 member, has decided that the NBTC "may have violated" its own powers. That is a weak criticism to say the least. Instead of taking the complaint to court, he will ask the Office of the Ombudsman today to try to delay 3G during an investigation of this vague charge.

Sen Rosana Tositrakul, one of the most thoughtful advocates for consumers, seems to have lost the plot over the 3G issue.

She said last week that the spectrum auction should have been delayed, perhaps for a year, in order to give smaller companies a chance to develop a business plan.

But 3G is hardly some surprising issue.

Ms Rosana said only AIS, Dtac and True Move could gather enough resources to take part in the auction. In fact, this number is normal and fair in a country of Thailand's size. The entire US, for example, has only three viable, national 3G carriers. The Philippines has two, and Germany has four.

But Ms Rosana might also want to consider why telecom rules effectively lock out investment by potential foreign phone network companies. Some have openly complained about the lack of competition due to Thai law. That is the responsibility of the legislature, including the Senate.

The handling of the 3G issue has been a soap opera for years. While Laos, Cambodia and Bangladesh are moving towards 4G service at burning speed, our authorities continue to fiddle with 3G.

There is no leadership from the government, where the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology continues to focus on censorship instead of better telecoms.

The courts have understandably shied away from airy, vague charges. Even the Ombudsman, who has no legal recourse in any event, has been reluctant to take up the cause of any of the anti-3G parties.

It is hugely disappointing that groups dedicated to consumer protection have stayed so silent. No one is speaking for the silent majority of Thais, who want to use their phones effectively. It is time to end the humiliation that Thai mobile phone services cannot even match that of Kazakhstan or East Timor.

Moving on 3G now will not rule out either corrective action or expansion in the future.

There is plenty of bandwidth available for more 3G services, and a second auction. And the country, unlike most of the world, has hardly investigated 4G, let alone made plans for it to be implemented in any way, shape or form.