Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A broadband tale of two countries

What a remarkable contrast between the two election campaigns that have recently been on-going in Australia and Thailand. The elections might be just one-month apart (Australia 24 Nov, Thailand 23 December), but in terms of ICT issues and the realisation that broadband infrastructure is a critical economic and social policy matter, they’re generations apart.

Sometimes I think the media and parts of the industry in Australia don’t appreciate that the country has a healthy, competitive ICT environment, both in terms of the infrastructure in place and the regulatory framework surrounding it. Sure, it could be a lot better, but then again you’re never going to satisfy everyone.

And sometimes I think the media and parts of the industry in Thailand don’t appreciate that the country is falling behind when it comes to infrastructure and a regulatory framework that promotes investment. Not just falling behind the likes of Australia, but neighbours such as Malaysia and perhaps even Vietnam. Sure, it could be worse, but not much.

This week in Australia is probably going to see a major announcement on broadband, given that it was a central plank of the new Labor government’s election campaign. But to be fair, you have to give credit to both parties for realising the importance of broadband and putting it on the political agenda. And the result of that is, no matter which party was elected, there was always going to be a political push to improve the country’s broadband infrastructure. At least something will happen.

In Thailand, by contrast, the only safe bet is that nothing will happen. And the telecom sector has pretty well been in limbo for the past decade. Ask most people who the current ICT minister is and you’ll likely get a shrug of the shoulders, although they’ll probably remember Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, who resigned as ICT Minister last month. However, they won’t remember him for his forward-thinking ICT policies, but rather his somewhat bizarre behaviour and occasional disjointed thoughts on improving ICT.

In his brief reign as ICT Minister, he managed to ban YouTube, tell foreign reporters that state-run telcos would be fully-privatised while at the same time telling Thai reporters that they would never be privatised, and proposed handing over all telecom networks to be managed by the listless Telephone Organisation of Thailand.

At one of his few meetings with the international media, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok, he managed to talk more about his sexual history than telecoms policy. He’s also well known for a collection of more than 300 guns, carrying around his own personal euthanasia machine (which he invented), and being the inventor of the Bangkok taxi meter. Yet at least in terms of education, he had something in common with his Australian counterparts – he boasts a PhD in Solid State Electronics from the University of New South Wales in 1975.

It would be wrong to blame Sitthichai, however, given that he was drafted into the position by the military junta – whoever held the reigns until the next government was always going to keep things in a holding pattern. However, that doesn’t excuse the previous years of inaction. In the past five years there have been numerous stories of foreign businesses relocating to other parts of Asia because of poor and costly telecoms infrastructure in Thailand. Now the local business people are getting outspoken as well.

As noted in CommsDay last week, a panel of some of the top Internet and telecom experts slammed the country's regulatory environment at a roundtable at the ICT Expo, saying it has left the nation ill-prepared for the convergence of telecom, broadcasting and media. Typical was the comment by Vilaiwan Vanadurongvan, an advisor to the Channel 7 TV station, criticising the regulatory vacuum. “Is a merged or separate watchdog better? We as the private sector do not care anymore. Anything is better than 10 years of inaction. Just go ahead and do something. Anything is better than the status quo we have today,” she stated.

If the contrast with Australia is unfair, given the differences in economic size of the two countries, Thailand needs only to look across the border in Malaysia to see what can be done with a strong government push. Initiatives such as the MSC and its supporting infrastructure, the licensing policy for both WiMax and 3G services and the plans for a national fibre rollout are way ahead of anything happening in Thailand.

Singapore and Hong Kong are probably unfair comparisons, given their sizes, but still it’s the willingness of the government and regulatory authorities to put in place policies that stimulate ICT spending that are the key issue. Hong Kong and Singapore have quite different approaches – with Hong Kong much more laissez faire – but both have been instrumental in creating an environment conducive to business.

There is still time for one of the political parties in Thailand to take up the ICT policy challenge and articulate a clear and enlightened framework to bring the country in line with others in the regions. If the next government fails to take action, however, Thailand will continue to be a telecom backwater and lose business to its neighbours. – Geoff Long

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