Thailand's telecommunications regulator decided on Friday to allow the sale of Triple T Broadband, or 3BB, to Advanced Info Service (AIS), turning the country's broadband market into a virtual duopoly.
The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) cleared the way for AIS to purchase 100% of 3BB, as well as a 19% stake in Jasmine Broadband Internet Infrastructure Fund (JASIF), the owner of 3BB's fibre optic assets.
The deal, valued at 32.4 billion baht ($899 million), would give AIS access to 3BB's upcountry broadband markets, where the former has limited coverage.
Regulators had indicated earlier that they would treat the AIS-3BB sale similarly to last year's megamerger between True Corp. and Total Access Communications (DTAC). NBTC said at that time it could only acknowledge such deals and lacked the authority to approve or deny. The merger allowed True and DTAC to leapfrog AIS in mobile network market share.
The regulator placed conditions on the deal, requiring AIS to offer broadband-only subscriptions as well as bundling broadband with services from its mobile business.
AIS, which has long been Thailand's top mobile network provider, was part of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's telecoms empire and is now controlled by the country's richest man, Gulf Energy CEO Sarath Ratanavadi.
Consolidation has characterized the global telecoms industry as the mobile business faces slow growth combined with high capital requirements to deploy fifth-generation (5G) networks. The Thai market, worth $20.7 billion in 2023, is projected to grow to only $25 billion in 2028 by research firm Mordor Intelligence.
Growth prospects are better in the fixed broadband market, as penetration was still under 60% as of 2021, according to Fitch Ratings. The “post COVID-19 scenario created an unexpectedly high demand for mobile, fixed broadband, and OTT services,” wrote analysts at Mordor, referring to over-the-top or streaming media.
The AIS-3BB deal would shrink Thailand's fixed broadband market from four players to three, with 80% of the market concentrated in True and AIS. Broadband has been a lossmaker for the state-owned National Telecom, which holds under 20% of the market.
Consumer groups and opposition parties criticized the NBTC's hands-off approach to industry mergers and acquisitions. Move Forward Party deputy spokesperson Pakamon Noon-anan called on NBTC to “carry out its duties in protecting the interests of the Thai people.” Move Forward was pushed to the opposition despite winning the most seats in the May general election, campaigning on a policy of demonopolizing the Thai economy.
Pakamon said the regulator had authority to disapprove mergers and acquisitions according to telecommunications law, which she said “states that measures must be established to prevent monopoly or unfair competition.“
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