Live-wire response to a power struggle

Live-wire response to a power struggle

If Bill Gates had really wanted to embarrass Thailand, he could have done a lot better.

The Microsoft co-founder and world's richest man recently posted a picture on social media of what he thought was a spaghetti-like clutter of overhead power cables in the Kingdom which went viral. Mr Gates said such "faulty infrastructure" resulted in blackouts and power cuts and made it easier to illegally tap into the power grid.

Unfortunately for Mr Gates, whose intentions were probably noble, the picture he posted was of communications cables.

Readers and netizens were quick to point out his mistake, and the Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA) even went to the pains of posting a graphic showing where high-voltage power lines and lower-voltage electric lines are positioned on a pole.

Despite literally getting his wires crossed, Mr Gates had a good point to make in general about the jumble of wires and cables positioned above ground.

He could just as easily have posted the farcical photo widely circulated earlier this year of a Nonthaburi footbridge with a power pole, complete with electrical cables attached, running through the middle of it.

The contractor's excuse was that he did not want to delay construction by moving the pole, so he left the pole piercing through the steps of the bridge so he wouldn't be fined for finishing the job late.

But sanity prevailed, and the Nonthaburi governor eventually ordered the pole and high voltage lines be immediately removed.

In recent decades Thailand's power authorities have made great leaps in providing a consistent power supply to both residential and commercial consumers.

But still, there is the vexed question of the ugly overhead power lines, carrying all manner of cables, that are a blot on the city landscape.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has urged state agencies to speed up the first phase of plans to put power lines and communications cables underground. Increased efficiency and the ability to handle heavier internet traffic is seen as crucial to improving the country's digital economy.

After Mr Gates' post -- but more importantly after a decade of procrastination -- authorities announced last week they are planning to spend about 50 billion baht to put 127 kilometres of cables and wires underground.

The first phase of the plan, scheduled for completion in 2020, will put power, telecommunications and broadcasting cables into a "single platform" below ground at 39 roads in Bangkok, Samut Prakan and Nonthaburi.

The ambitious project will require cooperation and coordination between the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, the TOT, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and the Royal Thai Police.

Eventually the NBTC will have to work out rental fees for the TOT, which will charge telecom and broadcasting companies for the use of the underground system. The TOT expects to reap one billion baht annually from the rentals when construction is completed.

In the past, under the Frequency Allocation Act, telecom licence-holders have enjoyed the right to negotiate with any company to lay their network lines. But the reality is that the existing power poles do not have the capacity to carry the new lines and state electricity authorities have in recent years been rejecting the telecom operators' requests.

Both the BMA and police will have roles to play in addressing the problems of people affected by the construction, as well as managing street conditions and the inevitable traffic woes.

But underground lines do have some drawbacks, chiefly the higher cost -- in this case, the MEA says, 10 times the amount of overhead lines.

There is also the issue of maintenance and repairs. The exposed overhead lines are far easier to access than ones buried under the ground. Bangkok's perennial floods and water drainage problems will also have to be factored into the planning and maintenance of the underground network. Delays, inconvenience and interruptions to power supplies will be inevitable during construction.

Despite these hurdles, Bangkok should benefit greatly from getting rid of as many of the overhead cables as possible. With the boom in the telecommunications industry and the delivery of more and more services, underground cabling is inevitable as the city modernises.

Of course, there is a much simpler reason to get rid of the power poles and overhead cables -- they are obstructive and ugly.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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