Thailand’s broadcasting and telecoms regulator gets regulated

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Thailand’s new National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission act has been quietly rubber-stamped by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly with a unanimous vote. The new law strips the regulator of any semblance of autonomy and independence and ensures that the current military junta influences telecoms in Thailand at least for the next 12 years.

From being an autonomous regulator, the new NBTC act now requires the NBTC comply with policy from the new Digital Economy Commission chaired by the Prime Minister with a spectrum plan to be in accordance with the DE Commission’s policy.

One of the most contentious articles is 27(1) which gives the DE Commission final say in whether the NBTC has complied with the DE Commission plans or not. The new act also gives the power to set a master plan to the Digital Economy Ministry and it has been pointed out that the DE Ministry can, in that master plan, designate spectrum for non-commercial purposes leaving only commercial spectrum for the NBTC.

Article 41 changes the wording from, roughly translated, “spectrum is a resource for public good” to “spectrum belongs to the country and will be used for the good of the country and its people”. This change is understood to be put in so that army-run broadcasters can claim they are already using spectrum for the good of the country without having to relinquish it to the NBTC.

Article 52(6) is new and allows the NBTC to use its funds to pay incumbents for their spectrum.

Article 57 paragraph 2 gives the DE Commission the power to approve the NBTC’s budget.

The composition of the NBTC commissioners has also changed with a single 7 member board instead of a chair and two 5 member boards for broadcasting and telecommunications. However, the selection process is much more centralised with senior civil servants doing the initial selection followed by the junta-appointed senate making the final selection. The outgoing NBTC act has a much wider first round from various professional bodies which self selects down to a shortlist for the half-elected, half-appointed senate to make the final choice.

Crucially, the timing of the 6-year NBTC terms and senate terms means that both the next NBTC board and the one after that will be confirmed by a senate appointed by the current military junta, or put another way, this junta will control Thailand’s spectrum for the next 12 years.

Commissioners can also be removed much more easily. Article 69 allows the auditor-general to recommend the senate remove an NBTC commissioner for inefficient use of money. The new 22 (1) reduces the majority needed to sack a commissioner from 2/3rds to 3/5ths of the senate votes.

Elsewhere, NBTC Secretary-General Takorn Tantasit has announced that the regulator will find a way to bring order to the chaos that is e-Commerce over the telecoms networks it regulates and find a way to collect tax on any in-app payments.

“I don’t care where you are registered or if you are losing money. If you sell in Thailand, you must pay tax,” he told reporters.

Takorn said that nearly all apps are made by foreigners who take money away from Thailand.

He said that the NBTC would consult with the Bank of Thailand on possibly levying the tax via the current credit card system when using a credit card to pay for goods or services in an app.

Thailand is hosting the ASEAN Telecommunications Regulators’ Council meeting this year in September. Takorn said that he has invited 50 ASEAN telecoms operators to discuss and find ways to tackle the issue of OTT app taxation and regulation at the event.

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