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NCPO jolts spectrum reform

Dec 21. 2016
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Prayut's decision to extend control over radio frequencies by state agencies as setback for media reform.

THE extension of state agencies’ right to use more than 500 frequencies for radio broadcasting for another five years has dealt a severe blow to Thailand’s national media reform agenda, academics said yesterday.

Several media experts were surprised by the extension order issued by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in his capacity as chairman of National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), using Article 44 of the interim charter.

No explicit reasons were given for the extension, but the order has effectively slammed the brakes on the reform agenda of the previous few years.

According to the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), all state agencies including the Armed Forces who currently control more than 200 FM and AM radio stations, were supposed to return their radio spectrum for reallocation by April next year.

Supinya Klangnarong, an NBTC commissioner, said she totally disagreed with the extension order since the watchdog’s reform agenda was intended to usher in a new era of free and fair competition on the use of precious radio spectrum.

Supinya said the use of Article 44 for the purpose will derail the reform efforts, adding that it is obvious that state agencies’ current use of the radio spectrum was not transparent.

Questions over sudden decision

“I’d like to hear good reasons from the NCPO for extending the state agencies’ right to use the spectrum,” she said.

The commissioner said state agencies will continue to enjoy benefits from using the spectrum for another five years without free and fair competition, especially after the TV broadcasting industry had already been reformed with the issuing of new digital TV licences through competitive bidding.

Radio ad spending amounted to an annual Bt5 billion to Bt6 billion, accounting for about 5 per cent of the country’s overall ad spending.

Many of the 500-plus frequencies, including those controlled by the Armed Forces, are used by private companies who are the agencies’ subcontractors.

Supinya said the five-year extension would benefit those business groups that were using the spectrum on behalf of the state agencies.

The radio spectrum had been allocated to the Armed Forces, the police, and state-owned public relations and mass communication agencies, among others. However, many agencies do not entirely use the spectra themselves.

Dr Suwanna Sombatruksasuk, manager of Chulalongkorn University’s radio station, said the extension order was shocking since the NBTC has been tasked with reforming the broadcasting industry, so all state agencies were required to return their spectra for reallocation.

She said the extension order would destroy reform efforts to redistribute national assets in the greater interest of the public.

Nunthasith Kittiwarakul, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University, said there is no obvious reason for extending the state agencies' right to use the spectrum in the order issued by the NCPO chief.

“If we want to really reform the radio broadcasting industry, we must ensure that state agencies do not allow the private sector to use the spectrum as subcontractors,” Nunthasith said.

Ekapol Tientaworn of Rajabhat Suan Sununtha University said there is no genuine effort to reform since the NCPO appears to have compromised on the reform agenda by extending the state sector’s right to use the spectrum.

One of the reasons is that many government agencies are unwilling to lose the financial benefits resulting from leasing or sub-contracting private firms to use their spectrum.

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