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Strong military role in NBTC

Sep 05. 2011
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By Usanee Mongkolporn
The Nation

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The fact that five military top brass have been named commissioners of the new 11-member National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) has convinced both private operators and members of the public that the watchdog will focus more on bro

"The top brass is expected to facilitate an overhaul of the broadcasting business under the new law, given the Army's vast interests in television and radio frequencies," said a source in the broadcasting industry. "All the frequency allocations must come under change and their presence could smooth things out."

Another source in the telecom industry said a higher emphasis on broadcasting was understandable, given that the NBTC's predecessor - the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) - had done a great deal to put that industry in order over the past seven years.

The Royal Thai Army has owned many broadcasting spectra, and has granted concessions to private firms to operate radio and TV businesses on its frequencies.

Great conflicts are expected under the Frequency Act BE2010's Article 43, which deals with the subcontracting of airtime. Slots available for subcontract will be determined by the NBTC. At present, several private companies operate full-time on the Army's radio frequencies.

One role of the NBTC, which will automatically replace the NTC when the commissioners win royal endorsement, is to put the broadcasting industry in order and take back unused spectra for reallocation. The NBTC will set up two sub-panels, with five members each, to oversee the telecom and broadcasting industries respectively.

A telecom-industry source believes that the NBTC will follow the master plan drafted by the NTC in drawing up its own telecom master plan.

Notably, NTC commissioner Natee Sukonrat, who has been appointed to the new body, will have to resign from the NTC within 15 days.

Aside from Natee, who oversaw the Army's satellite interests, the other top brass are an official at the Defence Ministry's Radio, Television and Telecommunications Office, Col Settapong Malisuwan; the chairman of the board of the Defence Technology Institute (Public Organisation), Air Chief Marshal Thares Punsri; the former satellite TV chief at Channel 5, Lt-General Peerapong Manakit; and a special adviser at the Royal Thai Armed Forces headquarters, General Sukit Khamasundara.

It has been speculated that either Taresh or Sukit will be voted NBTC chairman.

The NBTC commissioners are widely called a "dream team", as they will be tasked to steer the broadcasting and telecom industries through a difficult charted course. For effectiveness, the commissioners must show neutrality, as both industries are fraught with legal problems and political interventions.

Moreover, they will have to work closely with related ministries. Concerns are mounting that various tasks may delay their decision-making process and cost billions of baht in lost opportunities.

Cellular operators and telecom investors have high hopes that the commission will complete the spectrum table and master plans as soon as possible to enable the long-awaited auction of licences for third-generation wireless broadband on the 2.1-gigahertz spectrum. The greater the delays, the more uncertainty there will be over the ownership of the assets of cellular operators once their concessions from state agencies TOT and CAT Telecom end.

The auction will also allow them to develop new services, hence increasing investment and jobs.

The NBTC will also have to look into Article 46 of the frequency law, which obliges telecom operators to use their spectra to provide their own services, instead of subcontracting frequencies to others. This will affect the NTC's decision to allow subcontracting to mobile virtual network operators.

The NBTC will also have to deal with the broadcasting industry, from community radio to TV broadcasters and satellite-TV businesses, which were unregulated for many years in the absence of a National Broadcasting Commission (NBC).

The previous Constitution made obligatory the formation of the NTC and the NBC, but while the former got off the ground in 2005, the establishment process of the latter was nullified for reasons of unconstitutionality. It was not until 2008 that the Broadcasting Act authorised the NTC to oversee community radio and cable TV businesses.

The 2010 Frequency Allocation Law also authorised the NTC to act on the NBTC's behalf, pending formation of the new commission.

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