INTERNET AND COMMUNICATIONS IN THAILAND: CENSORSHIP, CELL PHONES, 3G AND INTERNET ADDICTION

COMMUNICATIONS IN THAILAND

Telecommunications in Thailand are based mainly on the telephone network, which has two types: a fixed-line system (land lines, international telephone connections, public phones, and the internet), and a wireless system, which carries mobile cellular phones, pagers, and communications radio. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

In 2002 the Thai government formed a new Ministry of Information and Communications to oversee all aspects of telecommunications. By 2006 the ministry was to have liberalized the provision of telecommunications services under World Trade Organization guidelines. However, the proposed privatization of the state-owned Telephone Organization of Thailand and Communications Authority of Thailand remains controversial. The ministry also is responsible for implementing the country’s information technology policy, called IT 2010, which is designed to strengthen Thailand’s telecommunications infrastructure as a means of promoting overall economic development.

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand: “The Thailand communications system is modern, widespread and convenient for visitors to use. Pay phones are found throughout the kingdom. Cell phone reception covers all but the most remote Thai islands. Both rental mobile phones and SIM cards are readily available in destinations including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket. Purchasing a second-hand Thai phone and a SIM card is both cheap and easy. It is possible to get a Thai SIM card at most international airports.Internet cafes in most urban areas and all tourist areas have Skype installed on their public computers. They often feature Skype headsets specifically to cater to visitors wishing to communicate with friends and family back home.”

The telephone system in Thailand has been operated over the years by the Telecommunication Organization of Thailand (TOT). Fixed-line operators in Bangkok are: 1) the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT); 2) Public Company Limited; and 3) True Corporation, while in the provinces, TOT operates jointly with Thailand Telephone and Telegraph (TT&T) Public Company Limited.

Thailand has a mobile wireless network for emergencies that allows communications in disaster sites for emergency workers that can be used if conventional forms of communication break down.

Communication Cables and Satellites in Thailand

For fast and convenient connection of all kinds of communication signals, both domestic and international, the CAT Telecom Public Company Limited has installed an optical fiber network and a microwave system, and it is connected with the “international gateway” through submarine optical fiber and satellite systems to neighboring countries such as the Union of Myanmar, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia, and Malaysia.

A number of submarine optical fiber systems are in use in Thailand: They are: 1) Submarine Optical Fiber Thailand-Vietnam-Hong Kong (T-V-H); 2) FLAG (Fiber Link Around the Globe) Submarine Optical Fiber, linking the United Kingdom, Italy, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, and Japan; 3) Submarine Optical Fiber Malaysia-Thailand (M-T); 4) Asia-Pacific Cable Network (APCN); 5) Southeast Asia – Middle East – Western Europe 3 (SEA-ME-WE3); 6) Southeast Asia – Middle East – Western Europe 4 (SEA-ME-WE4).

At present, Thailand has three main satellite communication networks (satellite networks and their purpose): 1) INTELSAT For international communication over the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean; 2) INMARSAT For communication between mobile terminals and existing networks or exchanges in Thailand; 3) THAICOM Used to connect communication between domestic users and hub stations, to enable international connections THAICOM is the royally granted name for the country’s first communication satellite, as an abbreviation of “Thai Communication.” The satellite contributes to the development of communication in Thailand, offering more options with which the Thai people are able to access data and information more conveniently and at a faster rate than before.

Thaicom 1,2 and 3 carry television and other broadcast data. In August 2005, Thaicom4, also known as iPSTAR, was launched. The heaviest private satellite ever launched and owned Thaksin Shinawatra’s Shin Coporation, it was placed in geostationary orbit over Southeast Asia to provide high-speed Internet service for Thailand and 21 other countries. Before iPSTAR, Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT) had a virtual monopoly on Internet service by controlling land and submarine cables.

Internet in Thailand

Of Thailand's 21 million Internet users, 17.6 million connect to the web through their mobiles, according to research group Nielsen. [Source: AFP, October 2, 2011]

Internet hosts: 3.399 million (2012), country comparison to the world: 31. Internet users: 17.483 million (2009), country comparison to the world: 23. Thailand’s internet code .th. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Internet cafes and wireless service are widespread, Internet cafes are often filed mostly with young people playing Internet games. The government has taken measures to try and limit the amount of time that teens spend online. There are internet cafes throughout Thailand that feature Skype headsets specifically to cater to visitors wishing to communicate with friends and family back home.

Internet service started in Thailand in 1995. In 2005 Thailand had 8.4 million Internet users, representing less than 11 percent of the population. In the later 2000s: 1) No. of internet hosting services in Thailand 1.231 million. 2) Percentage of computer users in Thailand 28.2 percent. 3) Percentage of internet users in Thailand 18.2 percent. Source: National Statistical Office, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

At present, most educational institutions are equipped with internet infrastructure. Moreover, the internet has become an essential tool in business operations. 1) Educational institutions with internet access: 97.3 percent. 2) Educational institutions with wireless internet connection: 22.1 percent. 3) Educational institutions with high-speed internet: 66.9 percent. [Source: National Statistical Office, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology]

The Internet and business: Enterprises and the frequency of internet use in their operations and economic activities: 1) business trade and services (56.1 percent); 2) manufacturing (20.3 percent); 3) hospital activities (17.1 percent); 4) land transport and activities of travel agencies (3.5 percent); 5) construction (3.0 percent). {Source: National Statistical Office, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology]

Number of internet users in Thailand, by activities: 1) Keeping up with the news (65.05 percent); 2) Sending and receiving e-mail (14.61 percent); 3) Playing games (14.44 percent); 4) Education (1.73 percent); 6) Downloading files (1.32 percent); 7) Having conversations (0.74 percent); 8) Reserving and buying merchandise (0.58 percent); 9) Chatting, expressing views (0.42 percent); 10) Telephone (0.09 percent); 11) Others (1.02 percent). [Source: National Statistical Office, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology]

Popular Web Sites

Thailand has seen an explosion in the popularity of online discussion on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter. The number of Facebook accounts jumped 75 percent to almost 12 million users in the first nine months of 2011. [Source: Janesara Fugal, AFP, October 2, 2011]

The Shrimp Club is an Internet Site with hundreds pictures of scantily-clad Asian women photographed by the sites owner Patrick "Shrimp" Gauvain.

www.pantip.com is one the most popular chat lines

Web sites that offer swaps and cheap deals in such as thaisecondhand,com and trada.com, which translates as “market,” are very popular in Thailand. They offer everything from underwear to pets to aircraft. One person who described himself as a second-hand maniac, told AFP, “I can buy computer parts, hand-made jewelry, fashionable watches, and pets at prices that sometimes are half the cost of brand new ones.

As of 2006 E-Bay had not yet arrived in Thailand and Craig’s List was only available in English while thaisecondhand.com listed over 800,000 products and recorded transactions worth $2.7 while million a month. The bestselling items were used cars, mobile phones, computers, houses and designer handbags. On trada,om people sell used stuff and things they market themselves such as jewelry.

Censorship on the Internet in Thailand

Internet censorship in Thailand is worrisome because controversial topics such as criticism of the monarchy can not be discussed openly. The Thai government can control what is written in newspapers but can't really control internet although it tries.

Thailand’s providers are required to filter material deemed sexually explicit or a threat the national security or the monarchy. People found guilty of crimes seen a s a threat to national security face up to 20 years in prison. In July 2007, a new law aimed at cracking down in child pornography went into effect that gave authorities the right seize computers from, homes and businesses.

In the early 2000s, when Thaksin was prime minister, at least 2,800 sites were blocked by Thailand’s Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology (MICT). Most of them were porn sites. Less than 10 percent were blocked for expressing “antiroyalist” views. Beginning in 2006 as the military gained more control of the government, the blockage of sites deemed insulting to the monarchy picked up. In 2006 the BBC, CNN and academic websites were blcoked. Some sites appeared to have been clearly blocked because of their political content. As of June 2007, at least 50,000 sites were banned, including commentaries, anti-monarchy sites, anti-government sites and sexually explicit sites, according to Bangkok newspaper The Nation.

In June 2007,Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “As far as the Internet is concerned, the government has transformed Thailand into a repressive regime on a par with Burma, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Iran, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. At the moment, at least 12 million regular users are facing heavy censorship by MICT and the Royal Thai Police. At the moment, in the absence of an Internet law, these authorities are the highest arbiters determining what sort of information and images Thais should have access to. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, June 18, 2007, ~]

The Thai authorities lack the understanding and skill to respond to new communication mediums. Quite often websites are shut down because monitoring officials do not want to risk their careers if dubious Internet content goes unfiltered. Eventually, they end up blocking more online content than they should. These bureaucratic responses and this official mindset is akin to that demonstrated by officials handling requests for public disclosure of government information. The number of banned websites varies in Thailand. MICT minister Sithichai Pookaiyaudom said less than two dozen sites have been banned under his leadership. But informal statistics show a huge discrepancy in the number of banned sites and the authorities' claims.

The problem is that the Thai authorities do not classify in detail the criteria used for online censorship. Previously, three types of content were prohibited online: pornography, anti-monarchy sites and sites critical of former PM Thaksin's style of leadership. The majority of banned sites between 2001-2005 were related to pornography and anti-Thaksin websites. That much was clear. However, following the coup last year, any online political views and commentaries critical of the Council for National Security and its interim government have not been tolerated. Strange as it may seem, similar critical comment of the government in printed media has not been banned. Sad but true, online critics have now been perceived as conspirators in the public relations campaign carried on by Thaksin, who has money and a penchant for using all available new media.

Internet and Thailand’s Lese Majeste Laws, the Royal Family

Internet Use by Teenagers and Video Games in Thailand

On study in 2003 found that 16 percent of young people in Bangkok were addicted to computer games and 58 percent of them played these games mostly at Internet cafes, Another study found that young people spend five of eight hours a day and 100 to 300 baht a sitting to play games. The numbers are probably much higher now.

Lynette Lee Corporal of IPS wrote: “Thai youngsters can spend up to 12 hours a day in Internet cafes playing online games, far beyond the average of 3.1 hours a day that the Ministry of Culture says young people spend online daily. Apart from the issue of spending a lot of time in cyberspace, which often means being cooped up indoors, parents and teachers are also concerned about young people falling prey to child prostitution, paedophilia and other forms of abuse online, such as cyberbullying. [Source: Lynette Lee Corporal, IPS, May 1, 2010]

"Parents of children aged 15 to 17 years old don't know much about what their kids are doing. The older the children get, the less involved are the parents in their kids' Internet activities," Juthamart Rattanakhom, former head of academic affairs at Thailand's Assumption Commercial College, told IPS. Parents tend to monitor the online activities of young children from six to nine years but "once they get older, parents leave them alone in general," adds Juthamart, a teacher for the last 27 years. "I think 90 per-cent of Bangkok-based kids are into online gaming," adds Juthamart, saying that boys tend to go for role-playing games like AdventureQuest and Alien Invasion. Internet café fees are just 20 to 25 baht (70 to 77 cents) an hour in the Thai capital.

"In Thailand, schools teach computer lessons more as an educational tool. When parents introduce their kids to the computer at home, they too must be aware of their responsibilities," says Juthamart.

The Korean online game Ragnarok was very popular for a while in Thailand, so much so much that parents and teachers became worried that young people were spending too much time and energy playing the games at Internet cafes. Even in small villages, youngsters can be seen gathered around a hand-held game boy video game. Entire families become addicted the game, rarely putting it down.

Telephones in Thailand

The telephone system in Thailand has been operated over the years by the Telecommunication Organization of Thailand (TOT). Fixed-line operators in Bangkok are: 1) the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT); 2) Public Company Limited; and 3) True Corporation, while in the provinces, TOT operates jointly with Thailand Telephone and Telegraph (TT&T) Public Company Limited.

Telephones - main lines in use:6.661 million (2011), country comparison to the world: 28. Telephones - mobile cellular: 77.605 million (2011), country comparison to the world: 18 [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Telephone system: General assessment: high quality system, especially in urban areas like Bangkok. Domestic: fixed line system provided by both a government owned and commercial provider; wireless service expanding rapidly international: connected to major submarine cable systems providing links throughout Asia, Australia, Middle East, Europe, and US; satellite earth stations - 2 Intelsat (1 Indian Ocean, 1 Pacific Ocean)

Thailand’s telecommunications network suffers from delays and other shortfalls in the provision of telephone services as a result of inadequate investment. The quality and availability of telephone service are much better in Bangkok and other cities than in rural areas. Mobile telephones (27.3 million in 2005) are much more prevalent than landline phones (6.7 million in 2004). [Source: Library of Congress]

Proportion of land line use in Thailand: 1) Residences 68.25 percent; 2) Businesses 17.47 percent; 3) Public phones 6.59 percent; 4) Government offices 6.23 percent; 5) TOT 1.45 percent [Source: National Statistical Office, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology]

For information about making calls and using phones in Thailand See Separate Article Under Tourist Information.

Thai Cell Phones

Mobile telephones (27.3 million in 2005) are much more prevalent than landline phones (6.7 million in 2004). Cell phones are so cheap they are sold at convenience stores. Handsets can be purchased for less 4000 baht and registration is often free. Cell phone operators often offer cheaper long distance service than fixed line operators. The low rates are due in part to competition between Thailand’s two largest cell phone companies, Advanced Info Service PLC and Total Access Communications. PLC

Cell phone use soared in the mid 2000s. In 2003, about 7 percent of Thais used cell phones, compared 25 percent in Malaysia, 70 percent in Singapore and 58 percent in South Korea. In the mid 2000s, the largest cell phone companies in Thailand were Advanced Info Service PLC and Total Access Communications. PLC. Total Access was controlled by Telenor, Norway’s largest phone company, and was listed in Singapore.

The Thailand cell phone coverage is widespread, with reception available in all areas except at the most remote islands and isolated mountainous regions. Many overseas cell phones will work in Thailand, provided they are GSM compatible, as Thailand features both GSM 900 and 1800 networks. While it may be convenient to have friends and family call Thailand to reach you on your “home” cell phone number, receiving and sending calls is likely to be quite expensive. If your cell phone has a slot to insert a SIM card, such cards are available for a few dollars, either at the airport or in IT markets throughout the country. These SIM cards are funded by prepaid phone cards that are available at nearly all convenience stores in the country. If your phone doesn’t have a slot for a SIM card, a Thailand cell phone can be picked up at the airport for a reasonable rate or an inexpensive new or second hand cell phone can be easily obtained at locations such as MBK shopping mall in Bangkok.

Many foreigners who live in Thailand say if you don’t have to have a cell phone it is easier just to buy one than rent one. In rural areas the cell phone reception is often only good if you climb a hill. Cassandra James wrote on Yahoo! Voices: Using a cell phone in Thailand is incredibly easy. There are certain tips you should follow and easier ways to do things but, if you follow these tips, using a cell phone in Thailand should be as easy as picking the phone up and dialing it. 1. Using a US Cell Phone in Thailand - Most American cell phones are locked. What that means is you can only use them with a certain carrier so, if you're using your cell phone with AT&T, you can't just come to Thailand, buy a Thai SIM card and connect to a Thai network. Your locked phone won't let you. However, you can get the phone 'unlocked' for as little as $3 at any cell phone shop or stall in Thailand (and there are millions of them!) If you're in Bangkok, the easiest way to do this is go to the MBK Mall next to National Stadium sky train station and go up to the cell phone floor. Any stall on that floor will unlock it for you. It takes five minutes, while you wait, and from then on you will be able to use that phone anywhere in the world. [Source: Cassandra James, Yahoo! Voices, January 22, 2009]

2. Buy a Cell Phone in Thailand, Don't Rent One - Some articles on this subject recommend renting a cell phone in Thailand. That's a stupid recommendation as renting a cell phone is at least $35-$50 a week. You can buy a cell phone anywhere in Thailand for less than $50. You then have that cell phone to use not only in Thailand but in any country in the world you might travel to.

3. Getting a Thai Cell Phone Service - Once you have a cell phone (either your own phone unlocked or you've bought a new phone) then all you need to do is get it connected. Unlike the US, where it's a complicated process, Thailand is incredibly easy to get phone service in. Just go to any phone shop or any 7-11 and buy a SIM card. You can choose AIS, DTAC, Orange or any other cell phone company (they're all pretty much the same, so it doesn't matter which one you choose). SIM cards are usually around $5 and they often come with 15-30 minutes telephone time. Also, buy a phone card for the same company as you bought the SIM card from. Phone cards come in denominations of 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500 baht (around $3, $5.50, $9, $11.50 and $16)

Now, install the SIM card in your phone and turn your phone on. Within 2 minutes, you're set up and ready to go. Take the phone card you just bought and scratch off the userid and password on the back of the card to reveal the codes. Then dial the number the phone card tells you to dial, wait for the menu in English, key in your userid and password and wait until the recorded message tells you the new amount has been added to your account. Disconnect the call and you have a cell phone that works. When your phone is getting low on credit you will get a recorded message when you try to dial a call telling you you have "less than 25 baht credit" and need to buy more. Buy another phone card at any phone shop or 7-11 and refill.

For information about making calls and using phones in Thailand See Separate Article Under Tourist Information.

Smartphones in Thailand

Like everywhere else smartphones widespread in the early 2010s after the introduction of Apple’s iPhone. AFP reported in 2011: “Promotions for discount smartphones are wildly popular, with a recent iPhone offer attracting a crowd of thousands at a Bangkok shopping centre, many of whom camped overnight. "With smartphones and the iPhone in particular, I think you have the trend factor coming into play -- it's new, it's hip and it's a status symbol," Moody's analyst Laura Acres told AFP. [Source: Janesara Fugal, AFP, October 2, 2011]

The total sales of smartphones for True—one of Thailand’s the three major telecoms operators— soared to around three million this year, from 1.6 million in 2009, according to research from mobile maker HTC. The only problem was Thailand’s phone system was able provide good service. Aces said: "People are lining up wanting to use these things but if you are going to pay the money, you want to use it for what it is designed for, you want it to be more than a fashion item. Operators must be champing at the bit to really have these platforms working."

William Wang, director of telecom practice at Nielsen Thailand, said the kingdom has "one of the fastest smartphone take up rates in Southeast Asian countries", with eight percent growth in 2010. Without data networks like 3G, "smartphones won't be smart," he said.

Thailand Lags Behind in Adopting 3G Technology

As of 2012 Thailand was the only country in Southeast Asia apart from Myanmar not to have full 3G—Third-generation— technology, which allows mobile phone users to surf the Internet and download music and videos. Thailand had previously announced an auction of the 3G network in 2010. However, a Thailand court halted the move after state-owned telecom giant CAT argued that the regulator at time, the National Telecommunications Commission, had no authority to conduct the bidding. The government then overhauled the regulatory system and set up the NBTC, giving it a mandate to auction off the 3G bandwidth.

AFP reported: “A long-running business tussle means that as other nations — including impoverished Laos — move to introduce faster 4G technology, Thailand has yet to fully roll out 3G, a decade after it was first launched in Japan. Cambodia has had 3G network since 2006, enabling mobile users there to access online content at a faster pace than their Thai neighbours.[Source: Janesara Fugal, AFP, October 2, 2011++]

“In 2010 a Thai court halted a 3G licence auction at the last minute after state-owned giant CAT argued that then-regulator the National Telecommunications Commission, had no authority to conduct the bidding. CAT and TOT, another state-owned company, have lucrative rights to grant concessions for second-generation services and face a loss in revenue should operators acquire 3G licences and switch over to the new technology. ++

“There is some limited coverage in some areas as the three major Thai telecoms operators— Advanced Info Service (AIS), Dtac and True -- have side-stepped the licence issue by upgrading network data transmission speeds, building their own phone masts and providing 3G free of charge. Another consortium of firms offers pockets of high speed coverage, although outside of these they have no signal at all. The situation has turned Thailand's smartphone users into experts at navigating the patchwork of services. Some people juggle a variety of phones and SIM cards -- one for home, one for the train to work and maybe a third for the shopping mall. ++

Telecoms and technology consultancy Ovum forecasts almost 30 million 3G subscribers in Thailand by the end of 2016. It is hoped that a new body -- the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) -- will be able to break the licence deadlock. Anudith Nakornthap, Information Communication and Technology minister, said the government was "concerned" that Thailand did not yet have full 3G and expected it to be an "urgent" priority for the incoming NBTC. True’s 3G chief Piroon Paireepairit said his group expects the number of smartphones on its network to triple in the next two years and said 3G would be the "number one key strategy" in the coming years. But Moody's Acres said the "whole regulatory environment is so political", with "so many competing agendas". "It is quite remarkable an entire industry has been stifled because of lack of a comprehensive regulatory framework," she said. ++

Thailand Sells 3G Mobile Licenses after Long Delay

In October 2012, AP reported: “Thailand has taken a step toward catching up with neighboring countries in mobile communications technology after holding a long delayed auction for 3G licenses. Three bidders — subsidiaries of Advanced Info Service, Total Access Communication and True Corp. — on Tuesday won the licenses at prices slightly above the minimum allowed price. They spent about 41.6 billion baht ($1.4 billion) in total for the auctioned bandwidth compared with the 40.5 billion baht minimum price set by Thailand's communication commission. The licenses will be issued within 90 days. [Source: Associated Press, October 16, 2012]

Thailand's National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) sold nine licences to the country's three leading telecom firms. The auction has received some criticism in the local press, with the Bangkok Post and The Nation carrying articles quoting analysts who questioned the government's strategy. Their criticism focuses on the fact that six of the nine blocks on offer were sold at the minimum base price of 4.5bn baht per block set by the NBTC. [Source: BBC, October 17, 2012<>]

“The bids in the remaining three blocks were also just marginally higher than the minimum base amount. "Each operator ends up paying less than 1bn baht a year for the licenses, which is very cheap. "It will not benefit consumers. It will only help the operators' bottom line," Somkiat Tangkitvanich, president of the Thailand Development Research Institute was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post. <>

“At the same time, the regulator's decision to allow any mobile network provider to own a maximum of 15MHz on bandwidth, or three blocks also came under criticism. "Allowing each bidder to bid for an equal amount of maximum bandwidth did not encourage competition," Mr Somkiat said. "Second, setting the reserve price lower than the real value of the licences was highly damaging once competition was less than it should have been." <>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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