It’s hard to see what sort of involvement by a foreigner in Thailand’s telecommunications sector is not up swept into the notification restricting “foreign domination” over Thailand’s telecommunications businesses recently issued by the acting National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC). The NBTC’s notification goes far beyond the restrictions found in Thailand’s already expansive Foreign Business Act (FBA).
As reported in this PriceSanond News piece, the acting NBTC recently issued a notification restricting “foreign domination” over telecommunications businesses. It was published in the Thai Government Gazette on 30 August 2011 and became effective the following day, 31 August. The notification applies to all current holders of and applications for Type-2 (with network) and Type-3 licenses, meaning that it applies to companies that currently operate a business based on a permission, concession or contract with CAT or TOT. In other words, it applies to current participants in the telecommunications sector. The notification lists the following ten examples of what the NBTC claims is “foreign domination” of a telecommunications business:
1. direct or indirect share holding by foreigners or foreigners’ agents;
2. use of apparent agents (nominees);
3. holding of shares with special voting rights;
4. participating in appointing or having control over the board of directors or senior officers of the licensee;
5. a financial relationship such as having a corporate guarantee or a loan with a lower-than-market interest rate;
6. licensing or franchising;
7. management or procurement contracts;
8. joint investments (by a licensee and foreigners);
9. transactions involving transfer pricing; and
10, any other behavior which provides direct or indirect control to a foreigner over a licensee.
“…any other behavior…” That catch-all phrase seems about as expansive as you can get.
So Why Issue this Notification Now?
Just a hunch, but the Thailand’s telecommunications sector is lucrative, and the competition has become fierce. The relationship between Thailand’s second largest telecommunications carrier, DTAC, and its third largest telecommunication, True, has been particularly contentious. And of course time is running out for this NTBC: new members are supposed to be appointed to the NBTC this Monday.
But first some more background:
In April of this year, DTAC challenged a deal between True and CAT Telecom public limited company (CAT) in Thailand’s Central Administrative Court. CAT is a state-owned company that runs Thailand’s international telecommunications infrastructure, including its international gateways, satellite, and submarine cable networks connections. CAT was formed out of a government agency and is often still thought of as a government agency.
At that time, the Bangkok Post reported that Somkiat Tangkitvanich, the vice-chairman of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), “said the deal amounted to a ‘pseudo-concession’ and should be investigated for compliance with the law.”
About two months later, in mid-June, “True Move…filed a criminal complaint against its bigger rival DTAC for having a foreign state enterprise as a major shareholder, which it claims is a violation of the Foreign Business Act”, reported the Bangkok Post. The Bangkok Post went onto report: “True Move has no plan to file a complaint against Advanced Info Service even though the mobile market leader also has a complicated shareholding structure, said Athueck Asvanont, vice-chairman of parent True Corporation.” Interesting.
And filing this criminal complaint, of course, had nothing to do with the complaint which DTAC earlier filed with the Central Administrative Court over what the TDRI’s Somkiat Tangkitvanich said amounted to a “pseudo-concession“. The Bangkok Post reported in this same article that True’s Athueck “rebutted the claim that the petition represented retaliation against DTAC for filing a case with the Central Administrative Court seeking to scrap the contentious deal between CAT Telecom and True Corporation.”
Several weeks later, the Ministry of Commerce (MOC”) announced that DTAC appeared to be employing an illegal nominee structure in violation of the FBA. This development was summarized on this blog here.
Row Within MOC on FBA Claim Against DTAC
As blogged here and reported in the Bangkok Post, in early July, shortly after the elections but before a new government was formed and appointed new ministers, there was a row within the MOC itself about how to handle the matter. The Bangkok Post provided this description of the row:
The head of the Business Development Department is challenging his boss’s order for the department to take legal action against DTAC on its nationality, saying the instruction is a “direct political intervention” and “illegitimate”.
The department, a unit under the Commerce Ministry, insisted on submitting its committee’s original findings to the police and ask them to determine whether the law had been broken, and if so, to take further action.
The move openly challenges Commerce Minister Alongkorn Ponlaboot, who had yesterday demanded that Banyong Limprayoonwong, director-general of the ministry’s Business Development Department, press the charge against DTAC. “He [Mr Alongkorn] has no authority or obligation under the Foreign Business Act (FBA) to force me to accuse a company of being foreign-owned,” Mr Banyong said.
“Mr Alongkorn’s decision cannot be regarded as a government policy. It is a direct political intervention,” Mr Banyong said
Shortly afterwards a new government was formed. The old ministers were replaced with new ones. And the FBA case appears to have drop off the radar (for now at least).
What about the NBTC and its Notification?
The NBTC which issued the notification restricting “foreign domination” in telecommunications businesses is also about to be replaced with new members. Its members were also appointed before the July elections. The NBTC’s notification on “foreign domination” of telecommunications businesses was published just one week before new members are supposed to be appointed to the NBTC. As expained here:
The Thai Senate is scheduled to select members of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) this Monday, 5 September 2011. The current acting NBTC recently issued a controversial notification restricting “foreign domination” over telecommunications businesses shortly before the Senate was scheduled to select new members. The Bangkok Post reports that the selection process has been “punctuated by fierce lobbying”. If the Senate fails to select members of the NBTC by 11 September, the cabinet then appoints members to the NBTC, reports the Bangkok Post.
“Fierce lobbying” for seats on what would be a rather pedestrian regulatory body elsewhere? The Senate has the first shot at appointing new members to the NBTC. But if they are unable to do so by 11 September, the new Thai cabinet is supposed to make the appointments.
What this Means for Thailand: the Larger Picture
Thailand’s manufacturing sector is one of the most robust in the region because of liberal foreign investment rules, and that in turn has made the country a regional hub for industries such as car manufacturing and electronics.
But the services sector is highly regulated in favour of local groups.
Thailand also ranks as one of the last countries in the region to fully deploy advanced wireless technology, largely because of the absence of a regulatory agency with the necessary clout to rein in the powerful state enterprises and push ahead with the licensing of new services.
As a result, the country continues to suffer from a lack of foreign investment in the sector.
“The setting up of the NBTC will get the reform process going. That is key,” says investment analyst Thitithep Nophaket, who covers the telco sector for Phatra Securities in Bangkok, referring to the new watchdog body.
Yes; setting up an NBTC that is not beholden to any business interest is important. Eliminating or at least curbing laws that can be used to take out effective foreign competitors would also help. Let’s see if it happens.