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BANGKOK, Aug 29 (Reuters) - Thailand's telecoms regulator said on Friday it expected to issue new licences for third-generation mobile services by the end of 2009, seen as a key step in reforming the competitive sector.
The National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) held a public hearing about 3G services this week and expected to complete drafting criteria on issuing licences by the end of this year, Secretary-General Suranan Wongvithayakamjorn told reporters.
"Late next year, we should be able to issue 3G licences for a new 2.1 GHz spectrum," Suranan said, adding the regulator needed more time to consider public opinion and the information needed to decide on the number of licences and how they will be won.
"We will hold a public hearing about the draft criteria early next year. After that, we will send letters to invite interested operators worldwide. This process should take around 6-8 months," he said.
Licensing is seen as a key step in reforming the sector because companies will pay licence fees instead of paying a portion of their revenue to state-owned firms for the right to operate networks they built and paid for, as they do now.
Reform was delayed by slow progress in setting up another regulator to join the NTC in allocating 3G spectrums. But under a new law, the NTC itself has the authority to allocate them, Suranan said.
Analysts said the new 3G licences would also help reduce regulatory costs for operators.
"Although operators have to allocate big budgets to obtain licences and roll out networks, they will gain from big savings in long-term, regulatory, per-unit costs by as much as 20 percent of revenue," said Kim Eng Securities analyst Solaya Na Songkhla.
Thai telecoms operators are competing to deploy new technologies, including WiMax and 3G on existing networks, to extract new revenue from a nearly saturated sector.
They are also keen to receive 3G licences on the new 2.1 GHz spectrum, which requires much more investment than 3G on existing frequencies.
Earlier this month, NTC allowed the top three mobile phone operators to import equipment for 3G services, removing the last obstacle to launching the new service on their existing networks.
Both AIS, 21.4 percent owned by Singapore Telecommunications Ltd (STEL.SI), and TAC, controlled by Norway's Telenor (TEL.OL), plan to launch 3G services on their existing frequencies in Bangkok by the first quarter of next year.
Suranan said the NTC would also issue licences for the WiMax wireless technology service next year.
WiMax is a new super-high-speed wireless technology that allows users to surf the Internet and download data, sound and movies at considerable distances. ($1 = 34.14 Baht) (Additional reporting by Pisit Changplagngam; Editing by Alan Raybould)