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Phuket live wire: Thailand’s 3G woes

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PHUKET: UGH! What a mess.

If you’ve been following along over the years, you know that the history of 3G wireless internet access in Thailand has been fraught with competing organizations, lawsuits, government changes, allegations of corruption, political infighting, and a whole lot of money floating around.

To understand the quandary we’re in right now, you need to know the history. It’s complicated.

Many years ago, the two formerly-government-owned phone companies in Thailand, TOT and CAT, were assigned channels to use for mobile phone service.

CAT got the 850 MHz channel and TOT got the 900 MHz channel. It’s roughly analogous to allowing just two TV broadcasters to operate TV channels.

The original concessions to CAT and TOT were drawn up long before 3G (more accurately, HSPA) technology was a gleam in anyone’s eye. Many companies – AIS, True, DTAC and others – made fortunes selling mobile phones and monthly services back when SMS was considered an advanced feature. Some of the billions ended up in the pocket and suitcases of a fugitive ex-prime minister.

Then HSPA hit and everybody – especially anybody with a 3G phone – wanted to get the considerably faster internet access afforded by the new technology. There were lawsuits and threats of lawsuits, but in the end both CAT and TOT found ways to sublet their channels, allowing other companies to sell 3G services. AIS rented part of the channel – and much of their equipment – from TOT. DTAC and True (through a newly created subsidiary TrueMove H) rented part of the channel from CAT.

Keep in mind that it’s by no means certain either CAT or TOT have the legal right to rent off parts of their mobile phone networks for 3G carriers. They just went ahead and did it. Both TOT and CAT are required, by their ancient concession agreements, to operate their respective services. There’s a great deal of heated debate about whether AIS is currently running TOT’s service or TrueMove is running CAT’s service. CAT, for example, is running its retail 3G service, My 3G, on TrueMove’s network.

The fact that Thailand is one of the few countries on the face of the earth without 3G service certainly provided some stimulus, and the sight of billions of baht must’ve been enticing. (In case you haven’t kept up, North Korea now has a thriving 3G service, as do Zimbabwe and Myanmar.) Whether the business partnerships were formed in accordance with the law is a very hot point of debate.

When the new HSPA+ technology became available, first CAT and then TOT started upgrading their systems to handle the (considerably improved) features. TOT was deeply involved in the upgrade just last month. I talked about it in my Live Wire column for April 25. TOT is installing Nokia-Siemens equipment, which can be upgraded in place to a technology called LTE, called “4G” by many.

CAT, and then TOT, also started selling 3G service directly to consumers. Right now, there’s a major ‘Oklahoma land grab’ in progress, with five big phone companies – and countless smaller ones – trying to stake out a plot in the 3G wilderness.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of repeatedly botched attempts to open up a new channel – actually, five channels – that will explicitly be allowed to run 3G or 4G (5G anybody?) services.

When the governmental auction happens – it’s still scheduled for this year, but it’s been scheduled that way for three years – there will be a mad scramble to get customers to switch over to the new channel, known cryptically as 2.1 GHz. Some phones and tablets can make the leap from 850 or 900 MHz to 2.1 GHz. Others can’t. But that’s a story for another time. Which brings me up to the present.

Last week, Don Sambandaraksa reported on Telecomasia.net that “Thai ICT Minister Anudith Nakorntap has told state-owned TOT’s board to stop following the failed 3G business plan, that has so far cost $510 million (16 billion baht) with little to show after over two years of operations. Mr Anudith said, “to date, fewer than half the planned 5,320 base stations have been rolled out and the telco had only around 200,000 users, less than one twelfth of the projected target of 2.5 million users. Operational costs of the network exceeded revenue by a factor of four.”

If TOT gets squeezed, I have no idea what will happen to AIS’s 3G concession with TOT or with TOT’s deployment of 4G-ready equipment. But note that the numbers quoted here are for TOT’s retail operation. AIS, running on TOT’s network, says it has 1.2 million 3G subscribers.

Minister Anudith really took TOT to the barn. Not only has TOT been ordered to stop rolling out base stations, it’s required to report weekly to the State Enterprise Planning Office (SEPO) and the Finance Minister. The SEPO is explicitly charged with finding a way to keep TOT and CAT on resuscitation after their concessions run out – a devilishly difficult problem in every country that’s had their phone companies privatized.

In the same post, Mr Don also said that the Thai language newspaper Thairath – quoting an anonymous source on CAT’s board – reports that CAT has decided to shutdown the TrueMove H project, “after both the counter-corruption commission and the ICT Ministry have deemed the contract to be illegal.” If the contract is terminated, TrueMove can’t import any more equipment or install it for CAT.

If the rumor is true, I have no idea what effect that will have on TrueMove H 3G customers, or on DTAC 3G customers. But the CAT 3G retail effort, called My 3G, which I talked about last month, would be “canceled to prevent legal complications.”

According to The Nation’s May 9 edition, “The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) will on May 28 call in some CAT Telecom officials involved in that state agency’s 3G deals with True Corp to inform them that they may have broken laws… [including] the 1992 Public-Private Joint Venture Act, the 2010 Frequency Allocation Law, and Article 157 of the Criminal Code… The irregularities ranged from what appeared to be a well-designed political plan to pave the way for the deals to the CAT’s bypassing of some state procedures to make the agreements.”

What’s going to happen? Hard to say. For now, I think it’s a safe bet that your 3G connection will continue to work for the foreseeable future. But after the auction – if there is an auction this year or this decade – all bets are off.

Certainly, by the time Thailand has its 3G act together, most of the world will be running 4G.

With Woody hunkered down writing a book, the weekly Computer Clinics are taking a new turn. Until Woody emerges with an 860-page copy of “Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies” under his arm, sometime later this month, Seth Bareiss will hold computer sessions every-other Wednesday afternoon, from 1 to 3pm. If you have a Windows problem that needs to be solved, drop by one of Seth’s free afternoon sessions at the Sandwich Shoppes. Details in the Phuket GazetteEvents Calendar.

The sessions are sponsored by the
Phuket Gazette
and Khun Woody’s Sandwich Shoppes.

Live Wire is Woody Leonhard’s weekly snapshot of all things internet in Phuket.

Follow him on Twitter:
@PhuketLiveWire, and “like” the pages at facebook.com/SandwichShoppe and — C Woody Leonhard

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Tourism

What has the pandemic taught hotels about luxury. Is ‘less’ more?

The Thaiger

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What has the pandemic taught hotels about luxury. Is ‘less’ more? | The Thaiger
PHOTO: The Naka Island - The Luxury Travel Expert

by Anthony Lark

“Let’s say goodbye to all that stale pretence and manufactured pomp”

Until the collective nightmare that was 2020, many of the so-called high-end hotels had a reputation for trying to convince guests to pay for often dingy guestrooms lacking any real views inside an otherwise ornate structure with a storied, celebrated past, where the first impression was a check in often akin to applying for a bank loan. Defined as “luxury”, in the good old days they got away with it.

Over the thirty years I spent running Amanpuri and Trisara on Phuket, I heard hundreds of people complain of feeling ripped off at “legendary” and “iconic” hotels by staff that rudely treated them as anything but guests.

How many of us did not tip the head waiter after dinner on the first night, to return the next evening and find ourselves stashed at a table by the kitchen door, or getting ushered past the prime and utterly empty deck chairs (with a book on them) by an indifferent pool boy rushing to count his bounty at the pool bar.

As we in the hotel business look towards vaccine jabs while collectively praying for people to start travelling again, let’s say goodbye to all that stale pretence and manufactured pomp. Emerging from the darkness that was 2020, we hoteliers need to consider that life will not bounce back to all that, nor should it. Good riddance to the seller’s market when hotels could charge like the light brigade for sub-par accommodations and indifferent service while expecting our guests will automatically keep coming back for more.

Merriam-Webster ‘luxury’ definition #1: a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort.

“There will always be people willing to pay,” said the late, great Natale Rusconi of the Cipriani in Venice and Splendido in Portofino.The size of the room didn’t matter, he observed, nor did the price of a cup of coffee, as long as they felt cocooned in an ‘exclusive’ world with an established reputation of being the “best.”

A classic negroni or a plate of risotto on the terrace at Cipriani is luxurious, not so much because of the ingredients of the food and beverage (although it is the best), but because it’s a rare experience.

Sonu Shivdasani, owner of Soneva resorts, hits it on the head when describing luxury.

He points out “Our external communication focuses much more on our brand proposition of “Inspiring a Lifetime of Rare Experiences”.

For example, we touch upon the point of our guests being able to walk barefoot for a week. This is rare and hence a luxury.

Change is in the luxe-wind

There is definitely change in the post-covid wind. In virtual conversations with many wealthy, well-travelled former guests of mine living in the northern hemisphere, they are explicit about what they yearn for on the other side of their drawn-out lockdowns.

These people are the ones who every year asked me for the largest villa with the bluest views and the most kitted out yacht for a day on the Andaman Sea and now I sense they seek something distinctly less material. While I am not surprised to hear them in their Bel Air mansions and apartments overlooking the River Seine asking for deals, what they say next piques my interest. “Anthony, I don’t need the presidential suite when we come back,” they say without a whiff of disappointment to downgrade. They are increasingly asking not for the specs on yachts but for news of wellness offerings and rare, secret local experiences.

One company already excelling in this beyond luxury space is Six Senses, purchased in 2019 by the behemoth InterContinental Hotels brand but left to run relatively independently under CEO Neil Jacobs. In interviews and on panels throughout the pandemic, Jacobs has spoken often of his personal aversion to the very word ‘luxury’ as well as to ‘exclusivity,’ which he sees in direct opposition to Six Senses’ holistic ethos.

Community engagement, he argues, is not only an aspect of the brand’s sustainability guidelines but also critical to “the intrinsic value of the content around what is being offered” at each individual property.

Like Jacobs, I noticed even before Covid that bragging rights back home no longer focus solely on price-tagged acquisitions. Those same guests who regaled me during lockdown with tales from their past travels, talked about meaningful encounters with Bhutanese textile weavers, Portuguese sourdough bakers, Colombian coffee farmers or Thai fishermen with whom they shared meaningful encounters on immersive, often unexpectedly transformative journeys. Perhaps we all learned in lockdown that these memories endure far longer than we can linger on even the most decadent bed linens or the hotel’s fluffy-as-a-cloud bathrobes.

Even before any of us had given a thought to wet markets in Wuhan, our industry was abuzz with these ‘experiential’ and ‘transformational’ travel offerings, and we see smaller, more nimble independent hotels and resorts luring guests away from staid grand dames of the past, while commanding higher rates.

I suspect we will now enter a new era, best described by Morris Sim, one of the smartest marketing minds I know.Travellers he predicts, will be embracing the idea that “ luxury is the outcome of an experience, not a product.”

Merriam-Webster luxury definition #2: something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary.

To be clear, this is not a rallying cry to spend amidst an economic crisis. Luxurious experiences may be as humble as a thoughtful gesture or act of kindness by a staff member. It’s surprising our guests on their return to the hotel room to find their laundry cleaned, folded and tied with a beautiful bow, or that feeling of being cared for to discover one’s toothpaste, sunscreen and deodorant arranged like tiny soldiers on the bathroom vanity.

Going forward, those hotels that also help guests to make meaningful, immersive connections with the surrounding culture and environment while also delivering unpretentious, anticipatory service with thoughtful human touches will redefine luxury.

Merriam-Webster luxury definition #2b: an indulgence in something that provides pleasure, satisfaction, or ease

Throughout the heady 1990s, we opened a new Amanresort every year or so. While now considered places of beauty that were undeniably desirable, they were initially revolutionary upstarts compared with the most famous resorts of the 70’s and 80’s where gold sink taps stood out against bathrooms laden with Carrera marble.

Into this arena where remote controlled toilets that blew air on your arse were regarded as luxurious, Adrian Zecha’s vision for each Aman was unashamedly simple in design and utterly lacking in superfluous finishing’s. The late architect Ed Tuttle, who mastered this design of understatement used to tell his team (including his lead designer Pin Tan, who now holds that title at Six Senses) and clients that “it’s not about embellishment, it’s about owning the space.”By this he meant that humans are most at ease in spaces that function well when for them rather than for shelter magazines and marketing brochures.

As we look towards leaving hibernation behind, I strongly believe our guests will gravitate to uncluttered places where simplicity reigns, where they can look better and feel better about their emergent selves and where they can enjoy consequential encounters with fascinating strangers, after feeling cut off for so long.

At Trisara Phuket, the team here serves local residents and Bangkokians down for the weekend gourmet Thai-inspired lunches prepared by chefs under a Thai carved sala roof overlooking a charming lake at the resort’s nearby working farm, engaging with locals tending the farm while keeping comfortably cool and exquisitely sated.

My personal view is that successful hotels must throw off any remaining shackles of our industry’s past definitions of ‘luxury’ and pivot towards delivering authentically local guest experiences and anticipative service that surprises and delights.

Are we headed towards a new paradigm where our job is to nurture the “outcome of the experience” rather than the showmanship of counting threads of Egyptian cotton and embroidering initials on pillowslips?

What has the pandemic taught hotels about luxury. Is 'less' more? | News by The Thaiger

Anthony Lark is the founding and current president of The Phuket Hotels Association. He also runs his own luxury hospitality company focused on resort and residential villa design & master plan concepts, plus management auditing of existing properties as hotels prepare for a post-covid world.

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Thailand

Thai Airways to resume flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and Phuket

Caitlin Ashworth

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Thai Airways to resume flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and Phuket | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Thai Airways

After nearly 9 months on the ground due to the coronavirus pandemic, along with problems balancing their accounts, Thai Airways will resume flights between Bangkok and Chiang Mai as well as Bangkok and Phuket later this month. The flights will start back up on Christmas day.

Flights from Bangkok to the 2 key tourist provinces have been grounded since April 1. Starting December 25, the airline will run 3 flights a week on both routes. A source told the Bangkok Post that the new schedules will run until at least February 28.

Thai Lion Air, Thai Air Asia, Nok Air, Thai Smile, VietJet Air and Bangkok Airways have returned to the domestic skies since July and slowly adding frequency to their routes.

In addition to resuming the domestic flights, the Thai Airways is relaunching some international flights from January 1 to March 27 including weekly flights to Frankfurt, London, Copenhagen, Sydney, Seoul, Manila, Taipei and Osaka. Flights from Bangkok to Tokyo will be available 3 times a week and flights from Bangkok to Hong Kong will be available every day.

Thai Airways has been tackling bankruptcy throughout the lockdown and trying to make up for more than 300 billion baht in losses. Since many flights were suspended due to travel restrictions, Thai Airways has tried to make money by business ventures on the ground, like a pop-up restaurant serving in-flight meals and selling off unwanted equipment from their warehouse. There also disposing of much of their older fleet, including all of their Boring 747-400s.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

97 police officers investigated for fiddling Covid-19 payments

Maya Taylor

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97 police officers investigated for fiddling Covid-19 payments | The Thaiger
PHOTO: www.newsbeezer.com

97 police officers, from 41 police stations, are currently being investigated for an alleged scam involving Covid-19 payments meant for officers who worked extra shifts during the crisis. The case was assigned by national police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk in November, when it came to light that some officers may have fraudulently claimed allowances meant for others.

In one incident, an officer responsible for transferring extra payments to police on the southern island of Phuket transferred the money to his own accountant instead. At the time, the transfer was dismissed as a mistake (in his favour), with the officer in question receiving a warning, and payments then made to the qualifying officers.

Wissanu Prasatthong-Osot from the National Internal Affairs Police says the investigation should reach a conclusion within the next 10 days.

“The result of the investigation should be ready in 10 days. Currently, 97 officers in 41 police stations ranging from non-commissioned to generals are under investigation for being involved in the swindle. The bureau aims to provide justice to all policemen involved. After the investigation concludes, the victims will receive their full allowance, while the offending officers will be punished under the law and disciplinary standards.”

Nation Thailand reports that a full list of alleged offenders has been sent to Suwat, with Wissanu promising that none will escape prosecution.

“The National Police chief had also ordered the transfer of offending officers at the commander and sub-commander levels out of their areas as per the investigation procedures.”

SOURCE: Nation Thailand

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