MVNO hearing in Thailand – Major issue regarding access to spectrum needs to be solved ASAP

MVNOs are getting less and less in Thailand as the regulator seeks to understand what the problem is.

Thailand’s telecom watchdog, the National Broadcasting & Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) hosted a meeting with representatives of the mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) in the country.

The topic for the meeting was (in NBTC’s own words) “Listening to the opinions of a specific group (Focus group) to the problems, conditions and guidelines for the promotion and supervision of providing mobile virtual network operator services (MVNO).

The meeting topic was similar to the hearing held back in 2019. The difference was, that the hearing in 2019 consisted of two hearings: One day with the MVNO license holders and the second day with the mobile network operators, trade associations, academics and members of the public.

However this time only one meeting was held and it wasn’t announced in public, as with other hearings. The MVNOs was invited directly via email or phone calls. Other interested parties (trade associations, academics, members of the public and potential MVNO candidates), who heard about the meeting was turned down. In a reply to those, the NBTC mentioned they may open a second meeting for interested parties. The date has not yet been announced.

The NBTC had prepared 7 main topics and a couple of subitems as agenda for the meeting. Although these topics did concern MVNOs, it was a repeat of the meeting in 2019 and unfortunately, the item “Other”, was placed at the end of the meeting which left little to no time to ask, comment, discuss. Instead the participants will be able to comment in writing to the NBTC (deadline October 20).

Opposite in 2019, the amount of MVNO participating in the meeting this time had clearly shrunken with only a handful (estimated) MVNOs versus 25-30 NBTC employees, reflecting the problem and a need for solutions…yesterday

Unfortunately the solution was not part of the NBTC presentation.

The NBTC MVNO hearing in 2019 was packed with MVNOs
The NBTC MVNO hearing in 2019 was packed with MVNOs
Old hat and bla bla bla

Although, and probably with good intentions they did mention and ask for comments on obtaining a MVNO license, license condition such as must launch within a year, cancelling of wholesale contracts, retail minus 30, and the regulation that mobile network license holders must provide a reply to a request for access within 30 days. etc.

But before diving into the details and issues with these old regulations – in example the retail minus 30 calculation the NBTC has done, is only based on voice calling package – the major issues over the last decade, is related to obtaining network access.

The NBTC does have the notification in the all the spectrum license terms and conditions of the network operators, that they HAVE to provide minimum 10% of their capacity to MVNOs.

They also have the regulation that the MVNOs can request access and the MNO must reply within 30 days.

There are also two paragraphs, that in the case the MVNO is not able to obtain a reply from the MNOs or think that the wholesale offer is not in line with the regulation, they can raise a dispute case at the NBTC.

Asking how many MVNOs had done so over the last 10 years – the answer was: NONE!

This is interesting, knowing that both MVNA and MVNOs have approached the Big 3 (now only two) AIS and TRUE/DTAC to get access but haven’t gotten a reply or been told that the MNO can only offer a 10% margin to the MVNOs (or MVNA).

So, since the Thai telecom market went from Concession into a License scheme in 2013, no MVNOs have been able to launch on the networks of the Big 3.

No access to spectrum for MVNOs a few months from now

The nine MVNOs, that have been able to launch over time in Thailand – out of 65+ MVNO licenses awarded – have done so on the state-enterprise operators; CAT Telecom and TOT, who has since been merged into one entity named National Telecom (NT).

But a few months from now (Year 2025), The NT will have to give back its spectra (800MHz, 2100MHz and 2300MHz) to the NBTC.

The 2100MHz and 2300MHz of TOT (now NT), is the only spectrum available to MVNOs in the Thai market today.

To make matters worse, NT is not the only one responsible for the mobile network and capacity on the 800MHz, 2100MHz and 2300MHz, as it has entered into quasi MVNO and sharing agreements with the Big 3.

These partnerships are not only giving the Big 3 access to NT’s capacity, it has also given them control and a way to maintain a barrier to possible competition coming from MVNOs via NT, as the big 3 are de facto in charge of setting the price to NT and the MVNOs on these spectra deals.

In example, when a MVNO contacts NT to discuss a wholesale agreement, NT has to inform the Big 3 of this and the Big 3 will provide a wholesale price to NT. However NT also have to make a profit and hence have to add it on top of the wholesale price they obtained from the Big 3.

On top of this, as we all know you cannot provide a wholesale pricing without know the possible amount of subscribers, segment, etc. hence the Big 3 are not only de facto controlling the wholesale price NT can give to MVNOs – they are also fed with information about the upcoming competition.

As such, the Big 3 are in control at all times and the MVNOs will always end up with a higher wholesale price / less margin, as they have to pay two gatekeepers and those costs have to be paid by the end-users = no competition.

700MHz with 5G slicing and 20% capacity for MVNOs

CAT Telecom (now NT), did win a slot of 20MHz on the 700MHz bandwidth, at the auction 3 years ago, and announced this month (yes not the faster moped in town) , that they have been approved to setup a partnership where the network will be rolled out with 5G, 20% capacity to MVNOs as well as option for 5G slicing to MVNOs.

But before you open your piggy bank and head to the NBTC to apply for a MVNO license, thinking this is the solution for MVNOs – read the below first, as this –  as with other shinny 5G marketing nonsense –  is different in the real world.

NT has entered into a partnership (again) with AIS, one of the Big 2. Through the partnership, AIS will buy part of – and operate NT’s 700MHz spectrum capacity. NT will rent and pay rental fees to AIS’s network and related equipment that NT will use to provide its own service on the remaining 10MHz bandwidth of the spectrum, and this will be 4G but also 5G.

If you read the part on the Big 3 controlling barriers on the existing spectrum at NT today – this setup on 700MHz will be familiar to you by now.

But wait, there is more…

Although it sounds great that there is now 20% of capacity to MVNOs versus the normal 10%  – it is a PR stunt. Of course, it is now 20%, as it is now two operators, hence 2 x 10% = 20%.

In addition, remember it is only NT who is open to MVNOs thus it is only 10% of the 10MHz that is left to NT which can be used by MVNOs, and now comes another problem.

NT has its own customers, about 2 million of them and with AIS and NT taking up the capacity there is only space left for about 400,000 MVNO subscribers which is not even enough for one MVNO to reach financial break-even in the Thai market.

There is also the smaller details, in example that this network it not even build yet and there will be a change in the board of NT where it is said that many of the board members are leaning towards NT returning the 700MHz as it has no clear business model and the cost it to high.

Telco merger approved with MVNO condition but nothing has happened for 230 days

Earlier this year, (March 1st) two of the Big 3, TRUE and DTAC merged into TRUE as part of the merger conditions from the NBTC, the merger had to open a separate business unit and launch MVNOs on their networks.

The merger was 231 days ago and no MVNOs have launched on the merger. The NBTC did not provide answers at the MVNO meeting on an update, status or timeline for such.

Stop being a paper tiger – start regulating

With problem like these, the other issues presented by the NBTC at the MVNO meeting is second. In addition it would be interesting to know what NBTC’s goal is with these meetings “to promote MVNO”, as there hasn’t been any uplift since the meeting in 2019 or any changes to the access on the Big 3 for more than 10 years.

There must be some KPI from the NBTC, why else spent time and effort on this? But are the KPIs? Is it the number of MVNOs? It is the market share of MVNOs?

As a follow up on the revision to the Mobile Virtual Network Mobile Phone Service Notification B.E. 2556 (2013) – added to the Government Gazette: Book Number: 137, Section: 172 on July 20, 2020.

The revision on MVNO was said to be “in order to be consistent with the current situation, support free and fair competition and promote fair entry for smaller entrepreneurs, to increases the level of competition in the Thai mobile market and give users an opportunity to access more service”.

  • Did the revision result in promoting fair entry?
  • Did the revision result in the level of competition increasing in the market?
  • Did the revision result in more MVNOs and give users access to more services?
  • Has the NBTC done workshops and events with MVNO as subject – similar to its promotions on 5G?

NBTC has to remember the MVNOs are actually paying NBTC a fee both for the license but also (once launched), a fee of their revenue to run their business. But who wants to invest in setting up a MVNO in Thailand, if you don’t see any access to spectrum for your business a few months from now?

These are the main topics the NBTC has to focus on – and it is high time that they stop being a paper tiger and start regulating the market.

Our submission of comments to the MVNO hearing

Below you can download and read our submission of comments, suggestions and questions to the NBTC’s request for such,  in extension to MVNO hearing held on October 16, 2023.

Our Comment submission (PDF)

Our submission of comments, suggestion and questions to the NBTC MVNO hearing (PDF)


Author: Allan Rasmussen
Managing director at Yozzo. Allan is a MVNA/MVNE/MVNO specialist with hands-on experience from more than 60 projects in both competitive and greenfield markets. His expertise includes business case development, execution, launch and growth strategies. Advisor and consultant to mobile network operators, MVNA, MVNE, MVNO, National Regulatory Authorities, Government Agencies, Broadcast Companies, TMT Industry Associations, Innovation and Investment Banks.
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