5. Extending broadband connectivity in Thailand

Thailand is located in the centre of mainland Southeast Asia and has five distinct regions: the mountains in the north and west, the Khorat Plateau in the northeast; the Chao Phraya River basin in the centre; the maritime corner of the central region in the southeast; and the long, slender peninsular portion in the southwest (Britannica, 2022[2]).

Thailand had a population of 71.7 million as of 2022 (UN DESA, 2022[3]), concentrated mainly in the large metropolitan area of Bangkok, which has 15 million inhabitants (2015) (European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2015[4]), more than 20% of the country's population. Other urban centres of considerable size are Chiang Mai and Phitsanulok in the mountainous northwest; Phuket and Hat Yai on the peninsula's coast; Chonburi, Pattaya and Nakhon Pathom in the Chao Phraya River basin; and Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, and Udon Thani in the northeast.

Due to its geography, Thailand is exposed to climate extremes. The Chao Phraya delta is particularly vulnerable to flooding, with agriculture and tourism at most risk. Over 9 million Thais already live at risk of flooding, either permanent or annual, and this number is projected to rise to 19 million by 2050 (ASEAN, 2021, p. 117[5]). In terms of economic impacts, Thailand's economic composition makes it especially vulnerable to physical infrastructure damage (ASEAN, 2021[5]).

Thailand is the representative country of the cluster comprising Thailand and Malaysia, as outlined in Chapter 1. These countries share many commonalities, especially on several macroeconomic metrics that influence a country’s level of broadband deployment. Thailand had a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of USD PPP 21 153 in 2022, ranking fourth among SEA countries (IMF, 2023[6]). Malaysia ranked third in GDP per capita, just above Thailand, at USD PPP 34 392 in 2022 (IMF, 2023[6]). However, Malaysia’s population in 2022 was 33.9 million, around half of Thailand’s (UN DESA, 2022[7]).

Thailand and Malaysia have similar geographic breakdowns between urban and rural areas. Around 96% of the land mass in both countries was classified as “rural”1, with the remaining area classified as urban (“urban cluster”2 or “urban centre”3) (European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2015[4]). However, the population was more concentrated in urban areas in Malaysia than in Thailand (Table ‎5.1). In terms of human development, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) classifies Thailand and Malaysia as having a “very high” human development, along with Brunei Darussalam and Singapore in the region (UNDP, 2022[8]). The level of human development considers indicators across longevity, education and income (Table ‎5.1).

Given the similarities in geographical and economic conditions for broadband deployment in Thailand and Malaysia, the recommendations for Thailand may also apply to a certain extent to Malaysia. Nevertheless, the subsequent sections will focus on the situation in Thailand for further analysis.

Thailand’s broadband markets have made great strides over the past decade to increase network coverage and total number of broadband subscriptions, as well as deploy high-quality mobile and fixed technologies. Network coverage of fixed and mobile networks increased, with fixed networks reaching over half of all households in 2021 (based on government data). Mobile networks reached 98% population coverage for 3G and 4G by 2015 and 2016, respectively, and 85% for 5G by 2022 (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). The total number of broadband subscriptions reached 100.6 million in 2022 with mobile broadband accounting for 87% (ITU, 2023[12]). Mobile connectivity has kept pace with successive technology upgrades, accelerating between 2012 and 2014, coinciding with deployment of 4G. In 2021, with deployment of 5G, connectivity grew by 27% in a single year (Figure ‎5.1) (ITU, 2023[12]). Fixed subscriptions have shown slow, but consistent, growth from 2010-22, with year-on-year growth rates ranging between 5-20% and an average year-on-year growth rate of 12% (ITU, 2023[12]). In terms of penetration, the number of mobile subscriptions reached 121.8 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2022, above the regional average (103.7 subscriptions) (ITU, 2023[12]).

4G was the most common mobile broadband technology in Thailand in 2022 with 70% of mobile connections, followed by 3G with 17% and 5G with 13% (Figure ‎5.2) (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). 3G connections have shown a steady decline since 2016, coinciding with the rise in 4G connections (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). While 4G remains the most prevalent technology as of 2022, 4G connections decreased slightly from 2021 to 2022 (from 72% to 70%). This occurred simultaneously as 5G connections increased (from 4% to 13%) over the same period (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). This suggests 5G connections will likely gain ground compared to 4G, especially considering the high 5G population coverage of 85% in 2022 (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]).

Fixed networks have also proven to be dynamic in recent years. Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH), which overtook digital subscriber line (DSL) in 2018, represented the most widespread broadband fixed technology in 2021 with an impressive 82% of fixed subscriptions (Figure ‎5.3) (ITU, 2023[12]). Much of the fibre in the country has been deployed over aerial fibres. This is true in major metropolitan areas like Bangkok, as well as in suburban and rural areas. While this installation mode is often quicker and cheaper than laying fibre underground, aerial fibre is more exposed to the elements and adverse weather. As a result, aerial fibre might prove to be less resilient.

As mobile and fixed coverage and subscriptions have increased, prices for entry-level services for each have remained largely stable (Figure ‎5.4). In 2022, the price of entry-level fixed services (5 GB) was USD PPP 52.2, which was almost equal to the regional average of USD PPP 51.6 (ITU, 2023[12]). On the mobile side, the price for entry-level mobile services (70 min + 20 SMS + 500 MB) in 2022 was USD PPP 29.9, the highest price in the region and well above the regional average of USD PPP 15.5 (ITU, 2023[12]). However, in light of gross national income (GNI) per capita, Thailand’s mobile and fixed prices for entry-level services rank more affordable than those of some regional peers. Mobile prices were 2.0% of GNI per capita in 2022, slightly above the regional average (1.6%). In addition, fixed prices represented 3.4% GNI per capita, roughly half of the regional average (6.2% of GNI per capita), as discussed further below (Figure ‎5.13) (ITU, 2023[12]).

Thailand underwent a significant period of privatisation and liberalisation in the early 2000s to reform its communication market. Prior to the reforms, the state-owned enterprises Telecommunication Organization of Thailand (TOT) dominated domestic telephony services, while the Communication Authority of Thailand (CAT) dominated international telephony, postal and other non-voice services.

Since the late 1980s, TOT and CAT also performed certain roles normally undertaken by a regulatory body. For instance, they both issued licences (“build-transfer-operate concessions”) to private operators for various services (Jittrapanun and Mesher, 2004[15]). These licences allowed private operators to enter the Thai market and could be seen as a first step towards liberalisation.

In 2000, the government aimed to privatise TOT and CAT. However, due to political uncertainty, they were established as “private” companies with the government owning all shares (Wisuttisak and Rahman, 2020[16]). This situation continues, with the Ministry of Finance owning all shares of the TOT-CAT merged entity, National Telecom (NT), making it a fully state-owned enterprise. The merger of the two state-owned entities had long been under discussion. TOT-CAT finally merged in 2021 to become NT, with the aim of improving efficiency and better competing against other market players (Inside Telecom, 2021[17]).

These efforts were supported by the establishment of an independent regulatory agency, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC). The NTC was replaced by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) in 2010 under the Act on the Organization to Assign Radio frequency and to Regulate the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Services B.E. 2553 and its amendments (hereafter the “NBTC Act”) (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]; Government of Thailand, 2021[19]).

While the incumbent operator has not been privatised, the pace of liberalisation has picked up, with several private operators offering services. The mobile market has four main operators: Advanced Wireless Network Company Ltd. (AWN), a subsidiary of Advanced Info Service Public Ltd. Co. (AIS), True Internet Corporation Co., Ltd. (True), Total Access Communication Public Company Ltd. (dtac, part of the Telenor Group), and NT. Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) also offer services.

The mobile market is more concentrated than the fixed market. As of Q4 2021, AIS was the leader with almost half of the market share (47.7%) based on mobile subscribers, based on data from national authorities. It is followed by True with 32.0%, dtac with 17.4% and NT with 2.8% (Figure ‎5.5). MVNOs represent a small proportion of mobile subscribers, with only 0.05% of the total. Three of the four main players in the fixed market also provide mobile services: AWN (AIS), True and NT.

In the fixed market, there are four main players: AWN (AIS); True; Triple T Internet Co. (3BB), a subsidiary of Jasmine International; and NT. According to information from national authorities, True is the leader in the fixed market with 37.3% market share in terms of fixed broadband subscribers, followed closely by 3BB with 29.4%, NT (15.9%) and AWN (AIS) (14.3%) in Q4 2021 (Figure ‎5.6). Smaller operators make up the remaining 3.12% of the market. NT, AWN (AIS) and True also provide wholesale services.

As Figure ‎5.5 and Figure ‎5.6 show, competitors have assumed leading positions in the market from the national incumbent, NT. This is in part a testament to the impact of liberalisation on both the fixed and mobile markets. It also suggests equal treatment of new private players compared to the incumbent under Thai law.

However, the above market shares only provide a snapshot as of the end of 2021, which is the most recent data provided by national authorities. As such, they do not reflect recent market developments. In the mobile market, the merger of True and dtac was completed in March 2023 (Telenor Asia, 2023[20]). In the fixed market, AWN (AIS) indicated interest in the potential acquisition of two Jasmine International subsidiaries: 3BB and Jasmine Broadband Internet Infrastructure in 2022 (KPMG, 2022[21]).

Thailand’s framework to assess mergers and acquisitions has been put to the test during the merger proceedings of True and dtac, which began in 2021. According to local news outlets, NBTC itself seems to have been uncertain about its own authority in the matter, convening specific subcommittees on the issue. This included whether it could approve or deny the merger, upon which it sought judgement from the Office of the Council of State (The Reporter Asia, 2022[22]). The Council of State reportedly upheld NBTC’s 2018 regulation and the notify-only regime it establishes (The Nation Thailand, 2022[23]).

In October 2022, NBTC officially acknowledged the merger plan between True and dtac. This allowed the merger to proceed according to the plans presented. However, NBTC stipulated certain conditions involving requirements on prices, and provision of network services to support MVNOs, quality of service, coverage and innovation (NBTC, 2022[24]).

The decision was met with criticism from customer groups that argued the merger would harm competition. The Thailand Consumers Council (TCC) petitioned the Central Administrative Court in November 2022 to revoke NBTC’s decision and to order an emergency investigation and temporary halt to merger proceedings until the court’s verdict (TCC, 2022[25]). The Court dismissed the TCC’s petition (Central Administrative Court, 2023[26]).

In March 2023, dtac announced the merger’s completion (Telenor Asia, 2023[20]). Taking the market shares from end-2021 as an indication of possible outcomes following the merger, the market could evolve into essentially a duopoly, with AWN (AIS) controlling 47.72% of the market share and the merged entity becoming the market leader with 49.4%.

In addition, if the merged entity maintains and combines the individual spectrum holdings prior to the merger, it will change distribution of spectrum in the market. Before the proceeding, AWN (AIS) held 1 420 MHz across all bands; True held 990 MHz, NT had 540 MHz; and dtac had 270 MHz, according to national authorities. After dtac and True’s merger, they would hold 1 260 MHz, just behind AWN (AIS); NT would trail with 540 MHz.

Another acquisition is being discussed in the fixed market. In July 2022, AWN (AIS) announced plans to acquire 99.87% interest in 3BB and a 19% interest in Jasmine Broadband Internet Infrastructure Fund (KPMG, 2022[21]). However, the deal for these two Jasmine International subsidiaries is still pending NBTC’s regulatory review. Given AWN (AIS)’s dominance in the mobile market but weaker position in the fixed market, it may be motivated to increase its fixed footprint through the merger. This would allow it to offer better bundled offers, as well as to expand its backhaul network.

Should the acquisition occur, AWN (AIS) and the acquired 3BB would have the largest market share based on 2021 fixed broadband subscribers at around 43.66%. It would edge out True (with its market share of 37.3%), as well as NT (15.9%). If both deals go through, the merged entity of True and dtac and AWN (AIS), with its acquisition of 3BB, would be the top two providers with substantial market shares in both fixed and mobile markets.

Revenues and investment offer another way to understand the market, although data are only available for mobile markets in Thailand. In the mobile market, total revenues increased by 22% from 2013-22 in nominal terms, from USD 9.38 billion in 2013 to USD 11.45 billion in 2022 (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). These market revenues placed Thailand first in the region in 2022 in nominal terms, almost tied with Indonesia (USD 11.40 billion) (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]).

Perhaps unsurprisingly given its market share, market leader AWN (AIS) has consistently had the highest revenues of all players since 2013, reaching USD 4.99 billion in 2022 (nominal terms) (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). In 2022, True had the next highest revenue with USD 2.93 billion. Dtac and NT followed at USD 2.29 billion and USD 1.23 billion, respectively (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]) (Figure ‎5.7). This order follows the ranking by market shares (Figure ‎5.5).

Comparing operators’ revenues in the mobile market to the total spent on capital expenditures (Capex) tells a different story. Capex is a typical measure to track investment by operators on longer-term assets, such as to extend their network footprint. True stands out among its peers with a much more aggressive investment strategy. In 2022, True invested USD 1.60 billion in nominal terms, almost double the amount invested by AWN (AIS) (USD 919 million), and more than four times that of dtac (USD 329 million) and NT (USD 212 million) (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]) (Figure ‎5.8). True’s level of Capex in 2022 accounted for 54% of its revenues, whereas AWN(AIS) and NT had a capex-to-revenue ratio of 18% and 17%, respectively. Meanwhile, dtac’s capex represented 14% of its revenue (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]).

Overall, total investment in mobile markets grew rapidly over 2013-22. In 2022, investment reached USD 3.06 billion (nominal terms), fuelled by True’s investments that make up just over half of the total (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). This puts Thailand at the top of Southeast Asian (SEA) rankings in terms of mobile Capex investment in 2022, closely followed by Indonesia (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]).

The main bodies covering the communication sector in Thailand are the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES) and NBTC. MDES develops policies for the digital economy and society, including for communication infrastructure. Under MDES, the Office of the National Digital Economy and Society Commission (ONDE) is the primary policy-making unit. It supports and co-ordinates with the National Committee on Economy and Society, a body with representatives from various ministries and chaired by the Prime Minister. The committee develops national plans and policies to promote digital transformation of the Thai economy and society (Government of Thailand, 2017[27]).

NBTC is an independent regulatory agency with remit over the communication and broadcasting sector in Thailand. As previously noted, NBTC was established through the NBTC Act (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]; Government of Thailand, 2010[18]). NBTC is charged with managing, assigning and licensing spectrum resources, setting technical standards and specifications, licensing and regulating broadcasting and communication services, and promoting competition in the market, among other duties (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]). Further, NBTC can establish rules under the scope of its duties, as well as monitor the provision of communication and broadcasting services (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]).

MDES and NBTC co-operate to develop policies to advance the communication services in Thailand. MDES develops the overarching digital policy across various sectors, including the communication sector, which is set forth in the Digital Economy and Society Development Plan (2018-2037). NBTC defines sector-specific plans, such as those related to spectrum management, broadcasting and the Telecommunications Master Plan No. 2 (2019-2023), which aligns with the Digital Economy and Society Development Plan. NBTC must consult on these sector-specific plans with MDES and relevant government bodies, as well as the public and operators, and consider comments received (Section 49) (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]).

Aside from roles and responsibilities of MDES and NBTC within Thailand’s institutional framework, the level of NBTC’s independence should be considered. Section 60 of the Thai Constitution defines the de jure independence of NBTC (Government of Thailand, 2017[28]). NBTC can determine its own budget and revenues (Sections 57 and 65), only receiving government funds if its other sources cannot cover expenditures (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]). The NBTC Act and its amendments establish NBTC, its structure, functions and responsibilities, as well as the appointment process of NBTC Commissioner (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]; Government of Thailand, 2010[18]).

The selection process for NBTC’s Commissioners begins with a selection committee that defines the required skills and experience of candidates. Subsequently, the Senate announces a public application process that lasts at least 30 days. The selection committee consists of representatives from the constitutional court, the Supreme Court, the Supreme Administrative Court, the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the State Audit Commission, the Ombudsman and the Bank of Thailand (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]; Government of Thailand, 2010[18]). After reviewing the candidate pool, the committee sends the names of candidates meeting the defined requirements to the Senate. The Senate must approve with at least half of the total number of existing members (Section 16), after which it sends the names of approved candidates to the Prime Minister, who then forwards the list to the King for royal appointment (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]; Government of Thailand, 2010[18]). Overall, the legislation requires a degree of transparency, as the Senate must publicly announce and accept applications for the Commissioner posts.

While the government is involved in the appointment of NBTC Commissioners to a degree (i.e. through Senate approval and royal appointment), the selection committee is made up of representatives from judiciary bodies, independent organs, and the Bank of Thailand, which may help to decrease the risk of political influence. Similarly, in many OECD countries, a governmental or ministerial body appoints the leadership of communication regulators (OECD, 2021[29]). Nevertheless, measures to promote transparency, such as an independent selection panel to nominate and appoint leaders based on merit, can help insulate the process from any undue influence (OECD, 2021[29]). In Mexico, for example, the selection process of the communication regulator, the Federal Institute of Telecommunications (IFT), is based on “a qualification procedure carried out by an Evaluating Committee, based on the federal executive’s proposal, with the Senate’s subsequent ratification” (OECD, 2017[30]).

While the process in Thailand is rather transparent, NBTC was delayed in finalising the appointment process of its Commissioners. Five commissioners received Senate approval in December 2021 and began their terms in April 2022 (Bangkok Post, 2023[31]; Bangkok Post, 2021[32]). The Senate approved the sixth in August 2022, whose term began in October 2022 (Bangkok Post, 2023[31]; Bangkok Post, 2022[33]). The seventh post (the Commissioner acting for the area of telecommunication) received Senate approval in February 2023 and is listed as being in office on NBTC’s website as of June 2023 (Bangkok Post, 2023[31]; NBTC, 2023[34]).

Some of the delay may have stemmed from legislative changes. The NBTC Act was amended in 2021, after the selection process had already begun. The 2021 amendment, which focuses on articles related to selection of Commissioners, were put forward to address “practical problems” in recruitment (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]). It modifies the required characteristics of selection committee members and specifies aspects of the recruitment and selection procedures (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]). Previously, one Commissioner each needed experience in engineering, law and economics, respectively. With the new amendment, two of the seven Commissioners can have experience that “will benefit the performance of NBTC’s duties” (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]). Moreover, under prior rules, one Commissioner could have experience in either support for promotion of rights and liberties or consumer protection. Under the new rules, one Commissioner is required to have experience in each of these fields (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]; Government of Thailand, 2010[18]).

In summary, under the amended rules, Commissioners should have qualifications and expertise in the following fields: one for broadcasting, one for television, one for telecommunication, one for consumer protection, one for the promotion of rights and liberties, and two other disciplines that support NBTC’s duties (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]). The current Commissioners chosen to fill the last two roles have expertise in economics and law (NBTC, 2023[34]).

Overall, the final Board largely seems to have relevant experience. However, passing the amendment during the selection process undoubtedly delayed the appointment of the Commissioners, and should not be a precedent. In future, care should be taken to fill the Commissioner positions without undue delays.

Once appointed, Commissioners hold office for a non-renewable term of six years. However, they only vacate their office once the incoming Commissioners have been appointed (Government of Thailand, 2021[19]; Government of Thailand, 2010[18]).4 The Commissioners vote among themselves to nominate the Chairperson, who with the consent of the NBTC shall appoint and remove the NBTC Secretary-General (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]). The latter has a term of five years, which may be extended but “shall not hold office for more than two consecutive terms” [unofficial translation] (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]). The delay to appoint the seven NBTC Commissioners also resulted in delays to appoint the NBTC Secretary-General.

Several laws govern the communication sector, namely the Telecommunications Business Act, B.E. 2544 (2001), the NBTC Act and the Radiocommunications Act, B.E. 2498 (1955), as amended. Under this governing legislation (Telecommunications Business Act and NBTC Act), NBTC may issue additional regulations (“notifications”) on specific issues under its remit. The Telecommunications Business Act defines the licensing framework to provide telecommunication and broadcasting services in the country and sets forth three licence types (Government of Thailand, 2001[35]):

  • Type One: for operators without their own network infrastructure that aim to provide services considered appropriate to promote liberalisation.

  • Type Two: for operators with or without their own network infrastructure that aim to provide non-public services (e.g. to a limited group of people) or to provide services unlikely to significantly impact competition.

  • Type Three: for operators with their own network infrastructure that aim to provide public services (e.g. to a wide group of people) or to provide services that may significantly impact competition or require consumer protection.

Interested parties must apply to NBTC and receive approval to provide service in the country. Licensees owning a network must allow other licensees to connect to their network and conform to technical standards for their network equipment and devices as relevant (Government of Thailand, 2001[35]). Section 55 of the Telecommunications Business Act also authorises NBTC to set maximum fee thresholds for specific services being offered by licensees (Government of Thailand, 2001[35]). Licensees are furthermore required to charge the same rate for the same or similar categories of services to consumers (Government of Thailand, 2001[35]). The Act also authorises NBTC to manage a fund to promote universal service and require relevant licensees to contribute to and support its operations. In addition, it requires NBTC to approve contracts undertaken by a licensee and a communication service user (Government of Thailand, 2001[35]). Among these, the NBTC Act determines NBTC is responsible for licensing spectrum and establishing a frequency allocation plan. According to the above framework, NBTC is also responsible for licensing and assigning numbering resources.

The Radiocommunication Act, B.E. 2498 (1955) establishes the regulatory framework governing equipment and requires a licence to manufacture, own, use, import, export, trade or install any piece of radiocommunication equipment (Government of Thailand, 2015[36]). It also includes measures aimed at reducing harmful interference or the obstruction of radiocommunications.

Promoting the digital economy seems to be a priority at the highest levels of the Thai government. For example, the National Committee on Economy and Society, established in 2017, is chaired by the Prime Minister. Together with ONDE under MDES, the committee aims to promote digital transformation. The Digital Economy and Society Development Plan (2018-37) is key to promote this transformation, which is led by MDES (MDES, 2019[37]). The first strategy (of six) aims to “build country-wide high-capacity digital infrastructure, ensuring accessibility, availability and affordability” (MDES, 2019[37]; MDES, 2018[38]).

In addition, the NBTC Act tasks NBTC to create a five-year plan to define and structure its operations, a part of which corresponds to the Digital Economy and Society Development Plan. The Telecommunications Master Plan No. 2 (2019-23), published in January 2019, is the most recent plan (NBTC, 2019[39]). There are six strategies in the Master Plan covering: promoting competition; licensing and regulation of telecommunication and radio communication; effective management of spectrum and numbering resources; Universal Service and closing digital and skills divides; consumer protection; and supporting digital transformation (NBTC, 2019[40]). It has several comprehensive strategic goals that correspond to many of the tenets of the OECD Recommendation on Broadband Connectivity (hereafter, “OECD Broadband Recommendation”) (OECD, 2021[1]). Areas of overlap include on measures to foster competition, investment and innovation; streamline licensing procedures; support efficient spectrum management; safeguard consumer rights; and close digital divides.

In conjunction, ONDE drafted the Action Plan for Broadband Infrastructure Phase 1 (2022-27) (ONDE, 2021[41]) as a roadmap to develop efficient, nationwide connectivity infrastructure. The plan sets out several goals, including to build fixed Internet with nationwide coverage with speeds of at least 100 Mbps; transition from analogue to digital systems, especially in television; increase data flows to and from Thailand; and support investment of data centres (ONDE, 2021[41]).

The market structure of the fixed and mobile broadband networks in Thailand sheds light on the level of competition in the respective markets, allowing for an assessment of market concentration. As noted above, the mobile market has four main players: AWN (AIS) with 47.7% market share based on mobile broadband subscribers, followed by True (32.0%), dtac (17.4%) and NT (2.8%), as of Q4 2021, according to national authorities (Figure ‎5.5). MVNOs also operate in the country but only account for a small share of the market.

With four main players, including one that holds about half the market, the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) based on these market shares is 3 612. This may indicate a moderately concentrated market, which some scales classify as those with HHIs between 1 500 and 2 500 (US DoJ, 2010[42]). However, this HHI and, consequently, the level of market concentration is likely to increase following the 2023 merger of True and dtac, the second and third largest players in the mobile market.

The fixed side also has four main players, but market shares by fixed broadband subscribers are more evenly distributed. True holds a 37.3% market share, followed by 3BB (29.4%), NT (15.9%) and AWN (AIS) (14.3%) as of Q4 2021, according to national authorities (Figure ‎5.6). Other providers account for 3.12% of total subscribers. Based on these market shares, the HHI for the fixed market is 2 724, considerably lower than the one for the mobile market. However, this HHI may also shift if AWN (AIS)’s proposed acquisitions proceed.

In light of these market structures and changes to the landscape (e.g. True-dtac merger and AWN (AIS)’s potential acquisition), Thailand’s competitive regulatory framework is especially important. Upholding competition in the communication and broadcasting sectors is a key mandate of NBTC, as set out in the NBTC Act. The legislation empowers the regulator to prescribe further measures to prevent anti-competitive behaviour (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]). In addition, Section 21 of the Telecommunications Business Act gives NBTC the right to prescribe measures to prevent licensees from undertaking monopolistic practices that limit market competition. It also requires licensees to allow other licensees to connect to their networks (Government of Thailand, 2001[35]).

NBTC issued the Notification on “Criteria and Procedures for Identifying Operators with Significant Market Power (SMP) in Telecommunications Business B.E. 2557 (2014)” to determine market players with SMP for relevant markets defined by NBTC (NBTC, 2014[43]). These include markets that are highly concentrated according to the HHI, have persistently high barriers to entry or have low levels of competition (NBTC, 2014[43]). Where relevant markets have low levels of competition, NBTC may consider designating players with more than 40% market share as having SMP. It could do the same for players with between 25-40% market share in light of other factors that may impact dominance in a certain market (NBTC, 2014[43]). NBTC prepares a report analysing the level of competition in the relevant markets and defines a list of SMP operators in each relevant market. This is a basis for setting out measures on operators with SMP, in line with the competitive conditions of the market (NBTC, 2014[43]).

SMP operators, as well as Type Two or Three licensees designated by NBTC, must provide local loop unbundling on non-discriminatory and fair terms, according to NBTC’s wholesale access regulation (NBTC, 2010[44]). Most recently, Decision No. 26/2564 defined SMP operators, including for mobile call termination and wholesale broadband access (NBTC, 2021[45]). For mobile call termination, AWN (AIS), True, dtac and NT were all listed as having SMP (NBTC, 2021[45]). For wholesale broadband access, NT, 3BB and True were classified as having SMP (NBTC, 2021[45]). SMP operators must comply with certain measures, such as applying fees based on costs (long-run incremental cost), offering wholesale access, reporting to NBTC and applying accounting separation (NBTC, 2021[45]).

Decision No. 26/2564 does not consider either the mobile or fixed retail markets to be relevant markets for consideration. This is somewhat surprising for the mobile retail market, given the 48% market share of AWN (AIS). Such an assessment may be even more warranted following the 2023 merger of True-dtac.

Given their immediate and sometimes significant impact on competition in the communication market in which the operators provide service, mergers and acquisitions are often closely monitored and regulated. The NBTC “Notification on measure to regulate mergers in the telecommunications business, 2018” (hereafter referred to as the 2018 merger regulation) sets forth the regulatory framework to assess mergers and acquisitions (NBTC, 2018[46]). Whereas previous legislation gave NBTC the right to approve or reject requests for mergers or acquisitions, the 2018 merger regulation changed this to a notify-only regime. Notification to NBTC of mergers exceeding financial thresholds must include, among other aspects, a competition analysis by an independent consultant (NBTC, 2018[46]). If this analysis finds the proposed merger results in an HHI of above 2 500, a change of more than 100, additional barriers to enter the market and the number of critical infrastructure being owned by the merged entity increases significantly, NBTC can consider specific conditions on the merger (NBTC, 2018[46]). However, NBTC cannot reject the merger or acquisition outright. The 2018 notify-only regime has caused a great deal of uncertainty, prolonged the period of consideration for the True-dtac merger and sparked legal contests regarding NBTC’s authority in the case.

In OECD countries, regulators closely scrutinise mergers in the communication sector before deciding whether they can go ahead. In many cases, regulators introduce merger conditions, such as those in Italy in 2016 (Hutchinson/WIND/JV) and the United States in 2020 (T-Mobile/Sprint) (OECD, 2021[47]).

Under the 2018 merger regulation, NBTC can prescribe conditions on mergers that are likely to increase the level of market concentration. Given market characteristics before the True-dtac merger, it seems likely the merger will increase market concentration. The sum of True and dtac’s pre-merger shares would result in a 49% market share and would increase the HHI to 4 726, up from the pre-merger HHI of 3 612. With True-dtac’s combined market share of 49%, competing with AWN (AIS)’s 48%, the market would become essentially a duopoly, assuming the pre-merger market shares of the two combine. These circumstances meet the 2018 merger regulation’s thresholds for NBTC to specify conditions, for example, the post-merger HHI is above the threshold of 2 500 and increases by more than 100) (NBTC, 2018[46]).

Indeed, NBTC did introduce merger conditions on several topics, including prices, provision of network services to support MVNOs, quality of service, coverage and innovation (NBTC, 2022[24]). Notwithstanding these conditions, given the potential impact of mergers on competition, the move to a notify-only regime where mergers are no longer subject to regulatory approval is concerning. It raises the question of whether NBTC can fulfil its mandate to uphold competition in the market.

The recent merger proceedings of dtac and True have forced NBTC to consider its role under this regulatory regime. Therefore, some of the legal ambiguity that arose during the merger will be clearer for future proceedings. This sectoral regulation (2018 merger regulation), which specifies NBTC’s mandate over mergers, takes precedence over the general competition authority in Thailand – the Trade Competition Commission of Thailand (TCCT). TCCT’s remit does not extend to competition issues within the remit of sectoral regulators, as defined by their governing laws (Government of Thailand, 2017[48]).

However, NBTC has only issued regulation on certain competition issues (e.g. mergers, SMP definition). It is unclear which body would have responsibility for other competition issues involving actors in the communication market. The role and mandate of NBTC should be clearly defined and delineated from TCCT in cases where no specific regulation has been issued by NBTC on other competition aspects.

Consistency in the application of the regulatory framework is also important. For example, different approaches and interpretations may have been used to evaluate the merger between True and dtac and between TOT and CAT. In the True-dtac case, NBTC convened committees and held several meetings to discuss the merger and its own jurisdiction in the matter. This does not seem to be the same process for the TOT-CAT merger. Some interpretation also seems required to apply the current legal framework. If different approaches apply under some cases, clear criteria should be set forth in the regulation to establish under what conditions.

Thailand’s regulatory framework aims to ease infrastructure investment in communication networks, mainly by allowing infrastructure sharing and promoting open access. With prior NBTC approval, mobile network operators may share infrastructure such as towers/masts, base stations, cables, antennas and radio node controllers or base station controllers (Government of Thailand, 2019[49]). Currently, Thai operators share passive infrastructure and assets according to national authorities, even though active infrastructure sharing of certain radio access network (RAN) and core network elements are permitted. Thailand also promotes an open access model in the Net Pracharat project (discussed in the “Digital divides” section below). The project allows licensed operators to use the networks constructed under the project to provide last mile Internet services to users in underserved areas. Such open access models can help optimise communication resources and avoid duplication of investments, particularly in areas that are not financially viable.

Another way network operators may seek to optimise resources while still fostering connectivity is by contracting wholesale services, especially in underserved areas. A well-functioning wholesale market can provide another option for network operators to access backhaul and backbone capacity to supplement their own networks in such areas. In Thailand, wholesale access regulation exists, and some operators are offering wholesale services. However, competing operators report reluctance to contract these services due to price and quality. Thailand could consider two actions to encourage the wholesale market. First, it could facilitate the deployment of wholesale networks, especially in underserved areas where it may be difficult for operators to recoup investments. Second, NBTC could monitor prices for wholesale services nationwide, (not only in underserved areas) and consider measures if it finds prices are not set at fair levels. This would be especially relevant for operators classified as having SMP in the wholesale market in question.

Thailand’s legal framework sets some restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI). Section 8 of the Telecommunications Business Act prohibits a foreigner under the Foreign Business Act (including where the majority of shareholders are non-Thai) from applying to obtain either Type Two or Three licences (Government of Thailand, 2001[35]; Government of Thailand, 1999[50]). Type One licences apply to operators offering services without owning their own network; Type Two licences are namely for operators that offer services to a specific group of customers (with or without their own network); while Type Three licences target operators that own their network and offer services to the general public (Government of Thailand, 2001[35]). This essentially caps foreign ownership or investment at 49% of capital shares for Type Two or Three licensees. In addition, NBTC issued further regulation prohibiting “foreign dominance” (NBTC, 2022[51]).

Nevertheless, several of the main players in both the fixed and mobile markets have foreign investors, although their ownership is limited to less than half. For example, dtac (prior to the merger) was part of the Telenor Group (Telenor, 2023[52]). AWN’s parent company, AIS, has a mix of shareholders, with the two largest being Intouch Holdings Plc (holding 40% of total shares) and Singtel Strategic Investments (holding 23%), both of which include foreign shareholders (AIS, 2022[53]). True (prior to the merger) also had China Mobile International Holdings Ltd. owning 18% of shares as of September 2022 (True, 2022[54]). Removing foreign ownership restrictions may help further increase foreign investment, especially as foreign players have already shown interest in Thailand’s communication markets.

In addition to the FDI regulation, several fees apply to operators. According to Thai authorities, all operators providing commercial communication services must pay an annual business licence fee based on annual revenues. This ranges from 0.125% of annual revenues for licensees with revenues of up to THB 100 million (USD 2.86 million) to 1.5% for operators with annual revenues of more than THB 50 billion (USD 1.43 billion) (NBTC, 2017[55]).5 Licence application processing fees also apply, which are quite nominal.

Spectrum fees apply as well. These are: 1) spectrum usage fees, for all operators or business entities using licensed spectrum; and 2) auction fees, where spectrum is auctioned (e.g. for mobile spectrum bands). Auction fees vary by auction, depending on spectrum band, demand and the amount of spectrum being sought. Numbering fees also apply. For instance, numbers for mobile service cost THB 1.50 (USD 0.04)/number/month (NBTC, 2020[56]).6 Finally, licensees must contribute 2.5% of net income from communication services (e.g. gross income minus certain costs deductions) as a universal service contribution (NBTC, 2017[57]).

These fees factor into business decisions related to investment, as they pose an overhead cost to operate in the country. Several other aspects may influence an operator’s propensity to invest. These include the company’s business and investment strategy and future goals (including merger plans); the financial health of the business; the level of competition in the market; and the regulatory framework governing investment in the country, including for FDI.

Nevertheless, the fees operators may pay may increase operators’ expenses and impact investment decisions. While the total level of fees that apply per operator varies, three out of four of the main mobile operators reported 2021 revenues above USD 1.43 billion (AIS [AWN], True, dtac; see Figure ‎5.7) (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). This would likely place them in the highest licence fee category of 1.5%. When combined with the Universal Service Obligation of 2.5%, their fees represent at least 4% of revenues from communication services. This does not include spectrum or numbering fees, which would also apply to these mobile operators.

Consequently, high fees could impact operators’ ability to make long-term investments. This is especially true on the mobile side, which have additional payments such as spectrum auction fees to obtain mobile spectrum, along with the spectrum usage fee.

On the mobile side, the current level of fees seems manageable as operators are investing in their networks (Figure ‎5.8). Indeed, Thailand is the regional leader in terms of total mobile Capex. These investments are likely supporting the expansion of high quality networks in the country, as evidenced by Thailand’s impressive 5G mobile coverage (85% of the population in 2022) (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). However, Thailand’s median mobile performance in July 2023 places it in the middle of SEA countries. It has a 40.6 Mbps median download speed and 13.5 Mbps median upload speed (Ookla, 2023[58]).7 Compared to its regional peers, these mobile speeds could imply more investment is still needed to improve mobile performance.

On the fixed side, operators seem to be heavily investing in fibre, as indicated by the high proportion of fibre of overall fixed subscriptions and its high median fixed download speeds (Figure ‎5.3). On speed metrics, Thailand is a clear leader, ranking second in the region behind Singapore. It is also fifth globally in terms of median fixed download speeds (211.3 Mbps download and 180.2 Mbps upload in July 2023) (Ookla, 2023[58]).

Current indications suggest that Thai operators are investing to expand and improve their networks. Nevertheless, Thailand should monitor the effect of fees on investment decisions moving forward to ensure operators have the financial capacity to invest over the long-term.

Thailand has policies and regulations to promote innovation. For instance, the NBTC Telecommunications Master Plan No. 2 (2019-23) sets a goal to promote innovative research and development in equipment and technology through the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Research and Development (BTFP) Fund. The BTFP Fund supports various projects in the telecommunication and broadcasting sectors. Recent telecommunication projects include support for research and development of equipment to inspect communication cables (2018) and a project to leverage the Internet of Things and communication systems to develop telehealth services amid social distancing restrictions (2020) (BTFP, n.d.[59]).

Several other policies emphasise next-generation communication networks, especially 5G. To promote the provision of 5G, NBTC issued the “Notification Re: Criteria for Permitting Frequency Use for Innovation Development and Testing in a Sandbox Area (Sandbox Notification)” in 2019. The Sandbox Notification allows participants to use certain frequencies and conduct frequency testing within the sandbox to develop and test equipment, networks or systems for pre-commercialisation purposes (NBTC, 2019[60]). Before, telecommunication operators could only receive a licence from NBTC for frequency testing. With this notification, a governmental entity or a juristic person registered under Thai law can apply for a sandbox licence to use frequency within the sandbox area (NBTC, 2019[60]).

ONDE has also developed an Action Plan for Promoting the Adoption of 5G Technology in Thailand, Phase 1. This plan aims to define the framework to support widespread adoption of 5G technology in various sectors and promote co-operation between the public and private sectors. Under this plan, Thailand introduced the "Thailand 5G Alliance" to drive 5G as the country’s key digital infrastructure. To that end, it will promote applications of 5G technology through business potential and commercial readiness.

In addition to these policies, Thailand supported deployment of next-generation networks by auctioning the spectrum needed to support 5G. NBTC auctioned three bands in 2020 – the 700 MHz, 2.6 GHz and 26 GHz bands – to support deployment of 5G networks. These 5G networks can, in turn, support innovative new use cases by providing higher speeds, lower latencies and improved capacity.

Thailand promptly set up the right enabling environment to promote 5G network deployment. This has included the 5G regulatory sandbox for operators to test frequency bands, policies to promote 5G applications and adoption, and assignment of sufficient spectrum in a variety of bands (low, medium and high). Indeed, Thailand was one of the first SEA countries to auction 5G spectrum. These actions seem to have paid off, considering Thailand’s early 5G rollout and its extensive 5G population coverage. By 2022, 5G networks covered 85% of the population, with 5G connections representing close to 13% of total mobile connections (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]).

Over 2010-21, broadband deployment in Thailand sped up for both fixed and mobile broadband networks. In terms of mobile broadband networks, 3G and 4G networks have expanded rapidly in recent years, reaching virtually the entire population (98%) in 2015 and 2016, respectively (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). Impressively, 5G network coverage by population reached 85% by 2022, just two years after operators began deploying in 2020 (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]). This increase in coverage has gone hand in hand with the aggressive investment strategy pursued by the dominant operator, True, over the last few years. However, the rollout of mobile networks would benefit from more investment by other competitors. They could be encouraged by a relaxation of restrictions on FDI and facilitation of mergers, subject to the relevant caveats (see section ‘Competition, investment and innovation in broadband markets’).

For fixed networks, the increase in coverage in recent years is notable. According to the ONDE (MDES), the number of households covered by a fixed broadband network in Thailand increased by 43% between 2017-21, reaching 54.9% of households (Figure ‎5.10). Further progress is needed to cover more households. The massive FTTH rollout between 2018 and 2021 is also noteworthy, resulting in good performance of fixed broadband services in Thailand, second only to Singapore in the region (see next section). This rollout has been mainly through aerial cables using existing electricity poles, although the government plans to consolidate this cabling in rural areas and move it underground in urban areas.

Operators report the burden of obtaining permits for network construction as a main barrier to network deployment. The process often includes different agencies across different jurisdictions (e.g. NBTC, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, Provincial Electricity Authority). Dealing with several agencies is cumbersome and time-consuming, and often delays approvals. In some cases, operators reported lack of clarity regarding which authority has priority to give the permits. Removing such barriers can have a positive impact on network deployment in Thailand, particularly on the deployment of backhaul networks and national plans for fibre consolidation and undergrounding.

Moving up from the access networks to the backbone/long-haul transmission networks, Thailand has a terrestrial fibre network of 33 868 km (2020) connecting major urban centres through the five regions (ITU, 2023[61]).8 However, only 19% of Thailand's population is within 10 km of a transmission node (2020) (ITU, 2023[61]), well below the SEA average (43%) (ITU, 2023[61]). This means that long distance backhaul networks will need to be built to connect broadband access networks and reach end-users. This can be a barrier to extending coverage in areas of low commercial interest, such as sparsely populated areas.

The equipped international bandwidth capacity in Thailand has been growing since 2013.9 This growth coincides with the rollout of 4G networks, which anticipated increased demand that reached 11 terabits per second (Tbps) in 2022 (ITU, 2023[12]). As expected, used bandwidth followed the same trend, albeit at a slower pace, reaching 62% of equipped capacity in 2022 (ITU, 2023[12]) (Figure ‎5.11). Thailand ranks fourth in the region for equipped capacity (18 Tbps), after Singapore (220 Tbps), Malaysia (93 Tbps), Indonesia (47 Tbps), and Viet Nam (24 Tbps) (ITU, 2023[12]).

Thailand has 13 submarine cable landing stations to implement this international connectivity. Eleven of these cable landings connect the country to extra-regional cable systems. This includes some of the world's largest submarine cables, such as SeaMeWe-3 and 4, Asia-America Gateway (AAG), FLAG Europe-Asia (FEA) and Asia Africa Europe-1 (AAE-1) (TeleGeography, 2023[62]).

Among other SEA countries, Thailand and Indonesia rank fourth in extra-regional cable connections behind Singapore (28), Philippines (17) and Malaysia (15) (TeleGeography, 2023[62]). Thailand is also connected to two regional SEA cable systems: the Thailand-Indonesia-Singapore Cable (TIS) and the Malaysia-Cambodia-Thailand Cable (MCT) (TeleGeography, 2023[62]).

Taking all cables together, Thailand is connected to virtually all regions of the world. These connections are mostly through Singapore but also include direct connections to Asia and Europe (through Asia Africa Europe-1 cable system) (Table ‎5.3). At the SEA level, Thailand is connected to all other countries through submarine cable systems (except the landlocked Lao PDR) with 13 connections to Viet Nam; 10 to Singapore; 9 to Malaysia; 4 to the Philippines; 2 each to Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Myanmar; and Indonesia (Table ‎5.2).

Moreover, according to the ITU Broadband Map (ITU, 2023[61]), Thailand has international terrestrial connectivity to its neighbouring countries (Myanmar, Lao PDR, Cambodia). In addition to terrestrial fibre networks of several operators, it connects through the Greater Mekong Subregional Information Superhighway (GMS IS). The GMS IS provides international terrestrial fibre connectivity to link Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China (Yunnan Province), Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam (ADP, 2005[63]).

Its international connectivity infrastructure, both undersea cable and terrestrial, and the relatively large number of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), positions Thailand as a gateway to the Internet for other less connected countries. For example, it could be a main or backup route to the Singapore or Hong Kong, China, hubs. It is also in a good position to host content and other services (CDN and cloud services nodes).

Thailand has 7 IXPs (2023) (PCH, 2023[64]), the second highest number after Indonesia. All are located in the Bangkok area except for the BKNIX Chiang Mai IXP in Chiang Mai, in the north-west of the country (Table ‎5.4). This infrastructure appears to perform well in handling the growing Internet traffic in Thailand. Quality indicators such as median fixed broadband latency (5 ms) were among the best in the region, only surpassed by Singapore and Brunei Darussalam (4 ms) in July 2023 (Ookla, 2023[58]).10

Despite the overall positive development of broadband penetration, there are significant divides when considering other factors, such as geography, age and gender. In 2021, 82% of individuals in rural areas used the Internet compared to 90% in urban areas (ITU, 2023[12]). In that same year, only 24% of those aged 75 and over use the Internet compared to 85% or more for other age groups (ITU, 2023[12]). With respect to gender, however, the differences are much less pronounced. There is a two percentage point gap favouring men, which has remained virtually unchanged over the last 20 years (ITU, 2023[12]).

There are several reasons behind these divides. Looking further at the supply-side reasons, mobile broadband mobile network availability, understood as the proportion of time users have a 3G, 4G and 5G connection (Opensignal, 2023[65]), shows high values and little difference between urban, suburban and rural areas. According to Opensignal the availability of 4G networks in rural areas was 92.1%, 4.6 percentage points lower than in urban areas (96.7%) (December 2022 – February 2023) (Figure ‎5.12) (Opensignal, 2023[66]).11 Despite the high level of mobile network availability, the lower quality of mobile broadband services in rural areas may contribute to the geographical divide connections (Figure ‎5.14, Figure ‎5.15).

There appears to be a gap in fixed broadband coverage. While there is no disaggregated data by geography, Thai authorities recognise that lack of access to broadband networks in sparsely populated areas is a main barrier preventing take-up by residential users and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in these areas. In addition, initiatives such as Net Pracharat to extend fixed networks to rural areas (backhaul and Wi-Fi access points) seem to confirm that fixed broadband coverage can pose a problem in such parts of the country.

Broadband prices in Thailand are relatively affordable in terms of purchasing power. They are around the target of 2% of GNI per capita or less for entry-level broadband services, established by the Broadband Commission in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, 2022[69]) (ITU, 2023[12]).12 Prices for fixed broadband prices are higher than for mobile broadband, although they fell from 5.3% to 3.5% of monthly GNI per capita between 2010-22 (Figure ‎5.13) (ITU, 2023[12]). Mobile broadband prices have also decreased in recent years and stood at 2.0% of monthly GNI per capita in 2022 (ITU, 2023[12]). Given that prices do not differ significantly between fixed and mobile services, the dominance of mobile broadband subscriptions could be explained by their greater coverage, although the usage profile could also play a role.

However, affordability of devices can also influence adoption of communication services. According to Tarifica, mobile device prices are relatively high relative to income levels in Thailand. The benchmark price of entry-level internet-enabled handset reached 15.1% of average monthly income in 2022 (Tarifica, 2023[70]).13 Moreover, operators in Thailand report the cost of a device can be a significant barrier to uptake of 5G services.

On the demand side, lack of digital skills is one of the biggest barriers to broadband take-up for all age groups. In Thailand, the proportion of individuals with the most widespread skill – “Using copy and paste tools within a document” – is only 15% in the 25-74 age group and close to zero (0.22%) in the older age group (2020) (ITU, 2023[12]). The situation improves for younger groups, although only about half have this basic skill (2020) (ITU, 2023[12]). Digital illiteracy is also behind the geographical divide, with a higher percentage of urban dwellers more proficient in all digital skills analysed (2020) (ITU, 2023[12]). However, this does not affect the gender gap, as women are ahead of men in virtually all the skills analysed (ITU, 2023[12]).

Lack of awareness of the benefits of broadband is the main hurdle to adoption. 90.2% of people who do not use the Internet in Thailand say this is because they do not need it (2021) (ITU, 2023[12]). Other reasons may be at play, such as concerns about the security of the Internet. According to Thai authorities, this is especially true for women. Lack of content in local languages would contribute to the age gap, according to national authorities.

Thai authorities have acted in several areas to facilitate network deployment and make sufficient spectrum available to the market. They have also launched several initiatives to narrow the gaps in broadband penetration, address supply- and demand-side hurdles, and bridge the digital divide. The main ones are described below.

NBTC enacted a series of notifications in 2017 to regulate access to passive infrastructure. The “Notification Re: Rights of Way B.E. 2560 (2017)” concerned poles, usually from the Electricity Authority; the “Notification Re: Duct Access B.E. 2560 (2017)” concerned ducts, usually from another operator (NBTC, 2017[71]; NBTC, 2017[72]). These notifications establish a pricing method, and an oversight and dispute resolution role for the regulator.

Another priority for NBTC is aerial telecommunication and broadcasting cables nationwide. Since 2016, NBTC has promoted a co-ordinated approach towards aerial telecommunication and broadcasting cables (NBTC, 2021[73]). There are two main elements of its plans. First, it focuses on consolidating aerial fibre in rural areas so there will be one, or at least fewer, high-capacity fibre lines instead of multiple small-capacity lines strung overhead. Second, NBTC has been working with operators in major cities to encourage them to either consolidate their fibre cables or move them underground, depending on the area. This represents an investment for the operators, both in cost and in the time needed for administrative approvals.

NTBC is the competent authority for spectrum management in Thailand. Under the NTBC Act, NBTC has released a Spectrum Management Master Plan since 2012. This Plan is the guideline for spectrum management, spectrum licensing and broadcasting, as well as telecommunication businesses licensing and regulation. It aims to encourage free and fair competition, efficient allocation, assignment and regulation of spectrum use. The Plan also defines the spectrum allocation strategy and the Table of Frequency Allocation. The latest plan is the Spectrum Management Master Plan No.2 B.E.2564 (2021) (NBTC, 2021[74]).

NBTC has the authority to assign spectrum In February 2020, NBTC auctioned the 700 MHz, 1 800 MHz, 2.6 GHz and 26 GHz bands to support 5G network deployment. The auction rules specified certain coverage requirements for both the 1 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands (NBTC, 2019[75]). However, blocks of the 1 800 MHz band were unsold (NBTC, 2020[76]). The band may be considered in future auctions, such as the one being considered by NBTC of the 3.5 GHz band. However, at the time of writing there has been low demand reported from operators. Before the merger of True and dtac, AWN (AIS) held 1 420 MHz of spectrum, True held 990 MHz, NT had 540 MHz and dtac had 270 MHz, according to national authorities. These spectrum holdings are higher than in other countries in the region. For example, in Cambodia, Smart Axiata holds the most spectrum with 232 MHz, while smaller players hold less than 50 MHz, according to national authorities. In Viet Nam, operators hold around 100 MHz of spectrum apiece. In addition, Thailand’s spectrum assignments across low, mid and high bands, which have differing but complementary propagation characteristics, also support 5G network deployments.

Licences for mobile services are for 15 years, a somewhat short period. According to Thai authorities, a spectrum use fee applies to all operators or business entities using licensed spectrum, including mobile operators providing mobile communication services. Meanwhile, an auction fee applies in the case of auctioned spectrum (e.g. for mobile spectrum bands). If licensees fail to comply with conditions, NBTC may revoke the spectrum licence (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]). Spectrum licences can be transferred, but only with NBTC permission (Government of Thailand, 2010[18]).

Thailand’s spectrum management approach has been a key factor to enable mobile network deployment. Ensuring that mobile operators have access to needed spectrum is key to support deployment next-generation networks, such as 5G. The auction of the 700 MHz, 1 800 MHz, 2.6 GHz and 26 GHz bands was integral to Thai operators’ timely 5G network deployment, which reached 85% population coverage by 2022 (GSMA Intelligence, 2023[11]) (Figure ‎5.10).

NBTC adopted a framework policy for universal access to broadband services in 2005 (NBTC, 2017[77]). The Universal Service Obligation Master Plan No. 3 B.E 2565 (2022) aims to provide basic telecommunication services to all areas and population groups. In this plan, the definition of “Basic Telecommunications Services” means telephone services and broadband Internet services. The programme includes the deployment of Wi-Fi access points and computers, as well as improving the digital skills of target groups. The cost of projects for the universal service is covered by the “Universal Service Fund”. Communication service licence holders contribute to the Fund through a fee, which is currently 2.5% of the licensee's total telecommunication revenue.

With the Village Broadband Internet Project (Net Pracharat), MDES has partnered with NBTC to extend broadband networks to approximately 45 000 villages in rural and border areas. To that end, the programme aims to deploy broadband backhaul networks in underserved areas, set up fibre optic networks in 24 700 of these villages, and establish a public Wi-Fi hotspot in each village. By July 2022, the Wi-Fi Net Pracharat service had approximately 11 million registered users. According to MDES, this initiative has helped bridge the digital divide and provide equitable and affordable access to information sources and services.

The Telecommunications Business Act authorises NBTC to set maximum fee thresholds depending on offered services (Section 55) (Government of Thailand, 2001[35]). NBTC has enacted certain retail tariff obligations under the Act. Two apply only to mobile communication services, while one applies to all licensees. Three Notifications detail these obligations: one on pricing approval, a second on reference rate regulation and the third on the maximum rate for excessive charges (Table ‎5.5).

The “Second Universal Basic Telecommunications and Social Services Plan B.E.2560 – 2564 (2017-21)” supports and promotes development of information and communication technology (ICT) literacy skills. The project will include delivery of training courses on “Development of digital literacy skills towards digital society” for a minimum of 500 000 people during three years of operation 2021-24 (NBTC, 2021[73]). In addition, ONDE delivers the “Developing Digital Village Volunteering” training course. The course selects community representatives for their basic competence in digital volunteering. Through the training and skills certification process, they play a supporting role in digital activities that promote and develop digital literacy in local communities (ONDE, 2019[81]).

Based on the Notification on the Complaint Process and Consideration of Complaint for Telecommunication Services B.E. 2559 (2016), NBTC accepts consumer complaints regarding communication services and resolves disputes between consumers and providers. The main point of contact – “Call Center 1 200” – allows consumers to submit complaints in a variety of ways, such as direct phone call, fax, e-mail, website and social media (NBTC, 2019[82]).

Additionally, NBTC has created a “Pro check website/application”. This provides information on promotions or services offered by mobile phone operators and high-speed Internet operators. It allows consumers to compare prices and select the right mobile/broadband plan (NBTC, 2019[83]).

The quality of fixed broadband service in Thailand is high, both in the context of SEA and globally. In July 2023, the median speed for fixed broadband access was second only to Singapore and ranked fifth globally at 211.28 Mbps/180.2 Mbps (download/upload) – and well above the global performance (82.59Mbps/ 36.8Mbps) (Ookla, 2023[58]). Latency was also among the best in the region – 5 ms – in the same month (Ookla, 2023[58]), below the global figure (9 ms). This good performance of the fixed networks goes hand in hand with growth in subscriptions to high-capacity access technologies, such as optical fibre and 4G, over the last few years (Figure ‎5.3, Figure ‎5.2).

The performance of mobile broadband connections is among the best in the region. For mobile broadband access, the median speed is 40.64Mbps/13.52Mbps (download/upload) (July 2023). This is fifth in the region (after Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, Malaysia and Viet Nam). It is also and just above the global performance (42.35 Mbps / 10.04Mbps) (July 2023) (Ookla, 2023[58]). Latency is 23 ms, below the global figure (28 ms) (Ookla, 2023[58]).

Measures of user experience reveal differences in access technology and user location. Over a 90-day period beginning in December 2022, the national average download/upload speed observed by users connected to 4G was 17.11 Mbps/8.32 Mbps (download/upload). Meanwhile, the observed speed reached 98.00 Mbps/21.13 Mbps (download/upload) for users with active 5G connections (Opensignal, 2023[66]). Rural users experienced 4G download speeds that were 23% lower than for urban users, and 5G download speeds were 24% lower (Opensignal, 2023[66]). Uploading speeds are also lower in rural areas, with 4G and 5G speeds 26% and 24% lower, respectively, than in urban areas (Figure ‎5.14, Figure ‎5.15) (Opensignal, 2023[66]) These results may indicate lower performance access networks in rural areas or an under-dimensioning of backbone and backhaul network capacity to connect them which would warrant further analyses.

The topology of the national backbone terrestrial network, with a degree of meshing between the eastern and western branches, provides alternative routes for traffic that avoids the central node in Bangkok. In this way, it contributes to the resilience of the network. There is also some meshing between the east and south-east branches, which could provide alternative routes to Bangkok and the south-east nodes. However, parts of the peninsular branch of the backbone network have no alternative route by terrestrial cable (for geographical reasons) or submarine cable. Such configuration could result in a single point of failure for connectivity in the area. This is particularly relevant as some of the most populated cities in the country are on the peninsula, as well as 9 of the 13 landing stations of the submarine cables connecting Thailand to other regions of the world, in the cities of Satun and Songkhla.

Furthermore, almost all IXPs are in Bangkok (Table ‎5.4), which is usually associated with the colocation of servers of content providers (CDN, cloud services). This means that, regardless of the physical paths available, most traffic is likely to be routed to the Bangkok nodes, creating single points of failure for Internet traffic that might affect the whole country. In addition, the Chao Phraya delta is prone to flooding, which represents a natural high risk for network disruption.

NBTC monitors the quality of telecommunications service provision in accordance with its “Notification on Telecommunications Service Provision Quality Standards”. Quality of service indicators must be measured and reported to NBTC each quarter. NBTC directly monitors the operators' quality of service both regularly and annually. It also does additional checks in response to consumer complaints. In addition, NBTC publishes information on communication success rates, speeds and prices.

The ASEAN Digital Hub project aims to increase bandwidth on domestic terrestrial cables connecting to neighbour countries and on international submarine cable systems. It also plans a new submarine cable system connecting Thailand to countries in the Pacific Region. The first and second actions to increase bandwidth on domestic and international routes are under way, while the construction of a new submarine cable system is expected to finish in 2023.

The Cybersecurity Act, B.E. 2562 (2019), published in May 2019 (MDES, 2019[85]), primarily regulates both public and private sector databases and information to ensure national security in cyberspace. The Act established the National Cyber Security Committee, which includes MDES as a member. The Prime Minister chairs the committee. The Act designates certain organisations as Critical Information Infrastructure Organisations, which include those providing ICTs and telecommunication services. These organisations must follow cyber threat procedures noted in the Act.

No information is available to assess the impact of telecommunication networks in Thailand. Nor is any information available on any measures by Thai authorities to minimise negative impacts of communication networks.

NBTC periodically publishes annual reports based on Section 76 of the NBTC Act, which assesses broadcasting and communication markets. With regard to the assessment of the communication market, it collects and publishes figures on the number of subscribers and market share in fixed and mobile services. In addition, annual reports summarise the mergers in the communication sectors (NBTC, 2021[73]).


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[53] AIS (2022), Annual Report 2022, Advanced Info Service Public Company LImited, Bangkok, https://investor.ais.co.th/misc/ar/2022/20230221-advanc-ar2022-en.pdf.

[5] ASEAN (2021), ASEAN Development Outlook Inclusive and Sustainable Development, ASEAN Secretariat, Jakarta, https://asean.org/book/asean-development-outlook/.

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← 1. Rural area (or mostly low-density cells) is defined as grid cells of 1 square kilometre with a density below 300 inhabitants per square kilometre and other grid cells outside urban clusters or centres (European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2015[4]).

← 2. Urban cluster (moderate-density cluster) is defined as contiguous grid cells with a density of at least 300 inhabitants per square kilometre and has a population of at least 5 000 in the cluster (European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2015[4]).

← 3. Urban centre (high-density cluster) is defined as contiguous grid cells with a density of at least 1 500 inhabitants per square kilometre. An urban centre has a population of at least 50 000 (European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2015[4]).

← 4. The previous NBTC Commissioners stayed in their positions until the first five NBTC Commissioners were royally endorsed (Bangkok Post, 2021[32]).

← 5. An exchange rate of 35.011 THB/1 USD was used, as reported on 3 July 2023 (Bloomberg, 2023[89]).

← 6. An exchange rate of 35.011 THB/1 USD was used, as reported on 3 July 2023 (Bloomberg, 2023[89]).

← 7. Data collected and aggregated according to Ookla’s Speedtest® Methodology (Ookla, 2023[87])

← 8. The indicator of ’transmission network length’, defined in the framework of the ITU Broadband Map (ITU, 2023[61]), refers to the physical length of fibre optic cable in a network irrespective of the number of optical fibres contained within the constituent cables of that network and can also be applied to microwave terrestrial networks. It is expressed in route kilometres (route-kms) (ITU, 2012[86]).

← 9. 2013 is also the first year with available data (ITU, 2023[12]).

← 10. Latency or ping is the reaction time of connection — that is, how quickly the user device gets a response after you've sent out a request. A fast ping means a more responsive connection, especially in applications where timing is everything (like video games). Ookla® measures several types of latency. The figures referenced in the text refer to ‘minimum latency’ that measures the best case latency for the user at the time they decide to take a Speedtest®. The lowest ping value is determined across one or more pings made before the download speed test – this represents the ‘minimum latency’ (Ookla, 2023[87]).

← 11. Reproduced with permission of Opensignal, based on independent analysis of mobile measurements recorded from December 1, 2022 - February 28, 2023, © 2023 Opensignal Limited - All rights reserved.

← 12. Specifically, “by 2025, entry-level broadband services should be made affordable in developing countries at less than 2% of monthly Gross National Income (GNI) per capita” (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, 2022[69]).

← 13. The data source for handset price is Tarifica; the source for GNI per capita, USD, 2022 is GSMA Intelligence. The handset price is the price of the cheapest handset available in each market with Internet-browsing capability in USD (nominal prices), as gathered in 2022. The methodology for data collection can be found in the Mobile Connectivity Index Methodology (GSMA, 2022[88]).

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