Dr. Uttama Savanayana
Minister of ICT
The introduction of 4G in Thailand is changing the telecom market quite rapidly. E-commerce is believed to become a main driver of internet development. Dr. Uttama Savanayana, Minister of ICT, discusses the investment climate in the ICT sector, the formation of the AEC, and public/private partnerships.
FDI Spotlight: Do you see Thailand’s telecommunications infrastructure as globally competitive and what is your strategy towards further infrastructure development?
Before this government came to power, the telecom infrastructure was developed up to a certain level. Each party involved worked towards some progress but the private sector was the major investor. The problem was that not everyone was working towards the same unified goal. Now the government is trying to organize all the investments so that everyone is moving forward in the same direction.
The cost of telecom service in Thailand is in some cases double or triple the cost compared to some of the neighbouring countries. If we compare the income of the populations, in Thailand the telecommunication service cost will be about 5.8% of the income of the Thai population, but in Malaysia, it will be only 2.5%, and in Singapore only 0.7%. For a developed country it should be less than one percent.
This government has seen the problems it is facing and has prepared two major plans. The 1st one is how can we provide a service to every Thai citizen in every area throughout the country, and the second one is how to decrease the service cost. When it comes to the infrastructure coverage throughout Thailand, take for example fibre optics, we plan to provide high speed internet to every sub district in the country. Over the next year we plan to provide it to every village in the country.
FDI Spotlight: The rest of the ministries see the role of your administration is to speed up a lot of these infrastructure projects that have been delayed under previous governments. Do you see it as your major role to get this infrastructure projects off the ground quickly?
The development of the physical infrastructure has been continuously developed in the past. For example the road system, rail way, and air traffic. Due to circumstances it had slowed down for a while so the current government would like to solve this problem and connect the system together. This will be done by changing the mind-set of the people by everyone working together and integrating.
FDI Spotlight: You mentioned before that in Thailand the private sector has developed a lot of the infrastructure, or public/private partnerships have. Do you still see a major role in the public/private partnerships in the future of Thailand’s infrastructure development?
For the public/private partnership (PPP) model, I fully support this idea. The main reason is that the private sector executes these kinds of investment with a lot more efficiency than the public sector does. For the budget, we don’t have enough capital to invest in all of the required infrastructure. We would rather put it towards education and healthcare in the country. These are activities that are necessary but that the private sector are not interested in. The main strategy to be used is PPP’s and in the past the government did not do this enough.
FDI Spotlight: How important it is for Thailand to embrace technology in order to improve its education system, particularly in the rural areas that have been left behind to some degree?
Education is important because in some rural areas they don’t have the tools or the teachers to provide the proper education for students. The ministry of education has continued to work on something originally started by the king to address this issue. They have started a demo project to support springboard education. We want to extend this project to be country wide and have been discussing this with the ministry of education about this kind of renewable education system.
We are working on a project for high speed internet to every school in the country. So far the ministry of education has provided high speed internet to approximately 10,000 schools and we would like to provide 5,000 more to cover everything. We have also recruited around 90 highly efficient teachers to provide the courses in this springboard education system. The teachers already in the provinces will be assisting these chosen teachers. We offer many subjects such as physics, chemistry, and biology that are not usually offered in these rural areas.
FDI Spotlight: Do you believe Thailand is prepared for the creation of the AEC and what opportunities do you see the ICT sector receiving?
Thailand has been preparing for the creation of the AEC for many years. Geographically we are located in the centre, the hub of the region. There are approximately 300 million people in the ASEAN region which will be a huge boost to the manufacturing sector since everything can be connected together. Thailand is already known to be very resilient and the formation of the AEC will only strengthen this.
Asia has not felt the consequences of the European economic crisis just yet. China has just started to have a few problems, but Thailand has yet to feel anything. We still have the ability to successfully create the AEC and boost the economy and the ICT sector. We have many opportunities for Thailand to become a great ICT economy because we have a strong private sector that can provide support in the form of large investments. However, the market must be organized in such a way that there will be fair competition and competitive pricing. This will spur a large growth in the ICT sector. Every country needs to be well connected for all of this to work.
We have had discussions regarding how we will connect our neighbouring countries, such as Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Vietnam. There have been three ideas, proposed by the ASEAN community, for the connection system: submarine cables, landline connections, and satellite technology. It is my dream to create a “Thai NASA” and where we will develop our own satellites. The major private backer in this venture has been a company called Thaicom.
FDI Spotlight: What would be your message to any foreign investors who might be concerned about political instability returning to Thailand?
Based on my 30 years’ experience of observing politics in Thailand, political instability will never effect the sturdiness of the Thai economy. The GDP growth for the region has always stayed normal, our production and manufacturing is nominal, and our tourism sector has stayed relatively strong even throughout turmoil. In the past two years when the political situation has been the worst we still have GDP growth. Even though sometimes the country is fighting, it only affects that one area, it does not affect everyone on the whole.
FDI Spotlight: What makes you proud to be Thai?
I am very proud to be Thai. I have studied abroad at the University of Pennsylvania and in my personal opinion, the living conditions in Thailand are still the best. Even though I have been all over the world, Thailand is still very unique. We are a very friendly nation. If we have a fight with someone it will never last long. Thailand considers the world its friend and is always willing to help whenever it is needed.