Thai court upholds suspension of 3G auction

A top court dealt another blow to Thailand’s efforts to catch up with Asian neighbours in cellphone technology on Thursday by upholding the suspension of bidding on third-generation mobile licences.

The Supreme Administrative Court’s decision halts the auction planned by a telecoms regulator, the National Telecommunications Commission, which was due to start Monday but had been legally challenged by CAT Telecom.

The Central Administrative Court on Thursday issued an injunction against the auction after state-owned giant CAT argued that the NTC has no authority to conduct the bidding, highlighting the country’s tangle of regulations.

Despite concerns that the verdict would dent Thailand’s competitiveness, the higher court denied that the latest technology was immediately necessary as it upheld the injunction.

“The fact that there is no 3G service for mobile phones for now is not an obstacle to the government’s administration or other public services,” said Thursday’s ruling.

But Jing Li, an Asia-Pacific telecoms analyst with IHS Global Insight, said the move was a “great setback” to the plan to issue 3G licences.

“The mobile penetration rate is already very high and it’s one of the only countries in the region that hasn’t issued 3G licences nationwide,” she said.

If the country waits for a new independent telecoms regulator to be set up, as the court deemed necessary, “it will take a long time for the 3G auction to be held”, she added.

The saga also illustrates Thailand’s political conflicts and its inability to deal with its muddled legislation, according to Somjai Phagaphasvivat, political science professor at Thammasart University in Bangkok.

“This is a structural problem. The government needs to catch up and adapt itself in order to compete with other countries in Asia,” he said.

CAT and TOT, another state-owned company that also requested to halt the auction, have lucrative rights to grant concessions for second-generation services.

Both face a loss in revenue should operators acquire 3G licences and switch over to the new technology, in which Thailand is lagging behind neighbours such as Cambodia and Laos.

3G allows mobile phone users to surf the Internet and download music, video and other content at a much faster pace than 2G service.

The firms due to take part in the auction were Advanced Info Service, Total Access Co and True Corp.