Total Access Communication (DTAC) has been dealt a fresh blow, with the planned auctions of its expiring mobile spectra pushed back indefinitely until the new board of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) takes the helm later this year.
The existing NBTC board is to cease making policy decisions this month. The new NBTC board, however, should be ready to take fully control after the expiry of DTAC's concession.
Auctions of the 1800- and 850-megahertz spectra were initially scheduled to take place this June, before the expiration of DTAC's 2G mobile concession in September.
"It's not a matter of law or authorisation, but appropriateness," said Prawit Leesathapornwongsa, an NBTC board member.
The existing NBTC board has acting status because its six-year working term expired in October 2017.
The new NBTC Act that took effect in June 2017 states that the government must complete a recruitment process for the new NBTC board to replace the existing NBTC.
The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) is recruiting candidates for the new NBTC board. The names of 14 final candidates were selected in February, and the NLA is expected to winnow the list to seven names for voting in April.
The acting board can continue to oversee the telecom and broadcast business in terms of routine and critically urgent jobs until a new board is established.
Mr Prawit said NBTC management submitted a letter to the Council of State in December 2017 asking for a clear resolution on whether the existing NBTC board could hold the auction as scheduled. The council has not given a reply.
Most members of the existing NBTC board are uncomfortable with scheduling the auction, as no one knows when or if the board will receive a response from the council, he said.
"The NBTC will definitely miss its original auction timeline of June," Mr Prawit said. "I believe the existing board has the authority to hold the auction because it is a critical issue that needs to be resolved on time."
The obstacle preventing the NBTC from running the auctions is "suitability", he said.
The 1800- and 850MHz spectrum ranges are operated by DTAC under a concession from state-owned enterprise CAT Telecom. The concession expires on Sept 30 this year.
The NBTC had planned to auction 10MHz of bandwidth on the 850MHz spectrum and 90MHz on the 1800MHz spectrum this year.
The original draft of the planned auctions was already approved by the NBTC's board in December and passed a public hearing the same month.
Based on the original timeline, the NBTC was to award licences to winners by July, or two months ahead of the expiry date of DTAC's 1800- and 850MHz concession, in order to avoid service disruption after the concession expires.
Mr Prawit said that while the seven new board members may be selected by April, beginning the endorsement process, the new board will not be able to complete an auction by June or September.
The new NBTC board has to study and update its job descriptions and existing critical issues related to its authority, which may take two or three months before work can begin on important agenda items, he said.
More importantly, the new board is likely to revise the existing auction's draft because it needs to study all the important details, Mr Prawit said.
"It would be very hard for the new board to instantly move ahead with the auction procedure, including all the details of the auction's draft that have already been approved by the existing board," he said.
Mr Prawit said that if the concession expires in September but the spectrum ranges have not been reallocated, the regulator may have to issue a remedy measure for remaining users on the spectrum to avoid service disruption.
Under a remedy measure, DTAC must continue service for its remaining users but transfer all benefits (after expenses) to the government.
The NBTC, however, does not oversee remedy measures, as they can create disputes because of differences in the calculations of benefit figures between operators and the regulator.
DTAC has 800,000 subscribers under its mobile concession on the 1800- and 850MHz network.
Mr Prawit said another factor hindering the auction is the differing opinions among the existing NBTC board about the auction draft.
The original auction's draft for the 1800MHz spectrum approved late last year divides the 90MHz of bandwidth into only three slots or licences, each containing 30MHz. The reserve price was set at 37.45 billion baht (for 30MHz of bandwidth).
But in January the NBTC decided to revise the auction's conditions by dividing the bandwidth into nine slots of 10MHz. The reserve price for each slot (10MHz) was reduced to 12.4 billion baht.
The NBTC said the change came after a public hearing on the draft in December and was aimed at encouraging competition for licences.
The amended auction draft has yet to be approved by the acting NBTC board.
Mr Prawit said some of the members of the existing NBTC board disagreed with the amended conditions.