Technological Divide and Thailand’s Development: A Reflection of Dr. Narong Yoothanom

As the first Engineer who received the prestigious Ananda Mahidol Foundation’s scholarship, Dr. Narong Yoothanom graduated with Ph.D. from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Electrical Engineering with specialization in Telecommunication. After half a century mastering the field of Engineering in Thailand, he reflected back on development of Telecommunication in the country – what went right and went wrong in the sector that is becoming the epicenter of modern economy. What held Thailand’s telecommunication back?

Is it too late to catch up?

What was Telecommunication sector like during your early years?

Telecommunication in Thailand was very slow in services to the people. Just to give you an example, it took at least 5 years to complete a request for a landline for household usage. The Telecommunication Organization of Thailand would say there was no sufficient landline. This was personal experience. We also didn’t have enough public phones as they were often stolen from the street. To communicate across the provincial line was also difficult. It was just the beginning of the land link system. But it was not widespread.

How about mobile phones?

In the 1970s, there was no mobile phone. When I returned from the United States, I wanted to trial a mobile phone but it didn’t go though. The police stopped us from experimenting in the research. This was during 1970s, Thailand was by then concerned much about the security issue of the 1973 Students’ Uprising. I can say we were beginning to get somewhere – our mock trial received reception from Siam Square to Wongvien Yai. But it stopped there.

Comparatively speaking, what was the Telecommunication sector like in the United States?

In the United States, everything was efficient during that time. If you requested in the morning for a phone, you would be likely to get it in the afternoon. It was all planned – the landline, the housing structure, the roads were all integrated. In Thailand, they said we were lacking the budget, lacking human resources, lacking the system. The then Thai system was heavily nationalized and didn’t let other experts to improve the system. It was viewed as a national security.

Half a century of Telecommunication in Thailand

 The past 50 years witnessed a proliferation of development for Telecommunication in Thailand. We let the private sectors to get involved, the motivation package improved and mobile devices become highly developed. Wireless devices improved exponentially. Think about it. Previously, for television broadcast, people in Bangkok would receive the news first and the news would travel to other provinces later on. Now everything is happening simultaneous and in real time. That brings a lot of changes to other sectors.

Hello ThaiComm!

We debated for a long time whether a small country like Thailand needed a Satellite. It was endless debate until there was a natural disaster in Chumphon province and the many land lines collapsed, which disrupted the communication between Bangkok and the Southern area. The disaster was grave and limitless for business and local communities. So the decision was made that Thailand needed a Satellite for communication. This will mitigate the negative impact of landline and land link’s disruption.

Rama the ninth of Thailand named it “ThaiComm” which stood for Thailand Communication. He was an avid communicator. He knew very well the benefits of a better Telecommunication system for Thailand.

Digital Divide in Thailand

Growing up, the digital divide was the main problem in Thailand – even in Bangkok. We went through a period where mobile operators increased the prices of the devices and hold us back. Thai population didn’t receive equal access to technological devices and it interrupted everyday’s use of technology.

If we had access to technology equally, we could have worked more efficiently, we could have communicated more promptly and we would not have been blocked by the mountains and by the sky. Digital divide is real and it slowed us down a lot. Equal access would have helped us.

Things are getting better. Now there are more than 100 million mobile numbers in Thailand. This is more than the numbers of the population. That is going in positive trend.

What’s next for Thai Telecommunication?

Telecommunication is developing all the time. The chips are improving – smaller and cheaper, more effective. Mobile phones are improving at the speed of light.

Regrettably, all of these developments are foreign-owned technology. Thailand is falling behind the development of homegrown technology for Telecommunication.

We are slow in research and development. We don’t do enough of it. During my tenure at Chulalongkorn University, I tried to fight that research must be an integral part of academic’s life. But Thai academics struggle to make ends meet. There is not enough compensation, there is no time to be still – to concentrate. Where would be the energy and focus to do research?

Research and resources: There are a lot of what’s if. Looking back, if he was supported, if he was not caught. Perhaps we might have had the first mobile phone made in Thailand 50 years ago.

Rattana Lao
Rattana Lao
Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.