Phuket Review: The Great Phuket Disconnect

PHUKET: There has been much discussion and error this week in the explanations given by Peerawat Promkladpanao of the NBTC Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Committee on internet connection rates in Phuket, with emphasis on 5G, and lots of jumps talking about basic cable connections. At present, what needs to be explained is what is being done to develop Phuket’s IT infrastructure as a vital part of Phuket’s economic future.

During his visit to Phuket on Friday, Mr Peerawat focused on 5G coverage as ‘many provinces’ lacked 5G as the economic impact of COVID-19 had halted internet service providers’ plans companies to deploy their 5G networks.

This is not true for Phuket. AIS has very good coverage in Phuket, DTAC’s 5G coverage is from Phuket Town to Rawai and True’s 5G network covers Phuket Town but no beach towns or tourist areas on the west coast (see maps 5G coverage in the gallery above).

The problem in Phuket is the connection fees. This is the only part of what Mr. Peerawat was talking about that affects people and businesses on the island. Here, we are talking about three markets:

1) local populations, most of whom simply cannot afford 5G plans;

2) local businesses still suffer from the lack of tourists and therefore cannot justify paying business connection tariffs – and therefore still on fixed cable connections; and

3) tourists who, as with most local development issues, are not too concerned with local IT development as long as it does not interfere with their holiday experience.

What needs to be understood about tourists is that the extent and capacity of 5G connectivity in their home country means that 5G in Phuket is no longer a nicety or a value-added luxury, it becomes the basis of connectivity for tourists to stay in touch with friends. family at home and share their holiday experiences.

Phuket’s internet connections starting to strain solely due to a work-from-home order coinciding with schools ordered to continue online classes in recent weeks has only shed light on the true connectivity base of Phuket.

The volume of internet usage has increased dramatically during the pandemic and the infrastructure support is not there. It won’t be there until 5G is not only rolled out, as it is already happening in Phuket, but is embraced by users. Until that happens, Phuket will depend on its 4G networks to support ever-increasing data rates.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

The missed opportunities to advance Phuket’s IT development are now almost endless and will only further delay or damage the island’s prospects for a sustainable economic recovery. The simplest example is the promotion of tourism already recognized by tourism authorities in hosting free “familiarization trips” of online Asian “influencers”. What they lack are the tourists themselves.

As the devastated tourism and hospitality sector gets back on its feet, why not unload them and offer a SIM card with free 5G connection for a month to tourists as part of the tourist tax? Malaysia did this very well with a free SIM card provided to tourists that provided free internet access so that tourists could share their vacation experiences with friends and family back home. It’s “the influencers” en masse.

Additionally, it provides the infrastructure for local businesses to grow in a sustainable manner. This will not be possible with the IT development in place. It’s not about the future of business growth, it’s about supporting businesses now.

Regarding the so-called “IT Hub” and “Smart City” initiatives, as evidenced last week by the DEPA office in Phuket being unable to provide connection rates to potential investors, one may wonder what what the agency actually does. Their current name is the Digital Economy Promotion Agency. Promoting our digital economy is literally what they are meant to do.

For the past two years, they’ve had only one job: to launch and maintain the PhuketMustWin vaccination registration website – and it’s had more than its fair share of problems. The Phuket DEPA’s role is meant to be watchdog only, with the actual work being outsourced, which only begs the question of what else they did with their free time. If they just don’t have the resources, we now know how seriously the central government takes the IT Hub and Smart City initiatives: all talk, no action.

Furthermore, it is unfortunate that the only agency actually created to promote IT business opportunities to potential investors is unable to report Internet connection rates to potential investors.

Meanwhile, the decision to attract anyone based on our IT outlook is so piecemeal that it’s hard to tell if the national government is actually serious about it. The laws still need a massive overhaul to legally allow foreigners to enter the country and work for an unregistered company in Thailand while there. Right now, the only legal options available are for wealthy businesspeople, not the ordinary online workers that exist today. Others violate visa, work permit and tax laws.

A large portion of digital nomads are semi-professionals doing their work through the internet, nothing more. The market in its simplest sense is a lucrative long-stay tourism market. Like long-term retirees, these people staying in Phuket to work online contribute directly to paying local rents, supporting local restaurants, a host of local service businesses such as vehicle rentals, laundry, entertainment and even hairdressers. These “displaced workers” will even take advantage of local tourist attractions during their stay, only supplementing the island’s one main – but battered – industry which is still struggling to survive.

Visa, labor and tax laws created over 50 years ago are no longer appropriate. The world has changed and new laws need to be created to match the modern world. Otherwise, just fall behind and let other destinations reap the rewards.

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