* Late Jan or Feb now seen as more likely than Dec
* Telecom shares down, underperforming market (Adds details, shares reaction)
By Khettiya Jittapong and Manunphattr Dhanananphorn
BANGKOK, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Thailand’s long-awaited auction of third-generation mobile phone licences could be delayed to February as the documentation process may take longer than planned, a regulatory official said on Friday.
“The appropriate timimg should be late January or early February,” Settaporn Kusripitak, one of the members of the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC), told Reuters.
Concern about yet another delay pushed telecom shares down in a generally firmer market. Although a possible postponement to the first quarter of 2010 had been expected by some, repeated delays to 3G licensing over the years have spooked investors.
“This is still within our timeline expectation, but telecom stocks will be under pressure from the delay,” said Kim Eng Securities analyst Solaya Na Songkhla.
She added that top mobile operator Advanced Info Service ADVA.BK (AIS) would be less affected than rivals by the delay due to a more favourable cost structure.
At the midsession break, AIS shares were down 1.42 percent at 87 baht, while the overall market was up 0.67 percent.
True Corp (TRUE.BK), a major shareholder of number three operator True Move, was down 1.1 percent at 3.56 baht and second-ranked Total Access Communication (DTAC.BK) TACC.SI had fallen 0.64 percent to 39 baht.
The NTC had planned to hold the 3G auctions -- expected to generate around $1.2 billion for the state -- in the middle of December.
But it is holding a second public hearing on the draft terms for the auction on Nov. 12, and Settaporn said it should then take around 45-60 days for interested operators to prepare documents, rather than the 30 days previously announced.
Licensing is seen as a key step in reforming the $4.7 billion sector because companies will pay licence fees instead of handing over a portion of their revenue to state-owned firms for the right to operate networks they built and paid for themselves, which is what happens now.
Telecoms operators are keen to receive 3G licences on the new 2.1 GHz spectrum. which analysts say should reduce their regulatory costs.
The faster 3G technology, which allows users to surf the Internet and download music with mobile handsets at faster speeds than current systems, would enable operators to tap new revenue sources in a market where almost everyone has a mobile phone.
While the mobile penetration rate is reaching 100 percent, the number of Internet users in Thailand remains low.
In a country of 67 million people, only 21 percent surf the Internet and just 2 percent go online with broadband connections. In Vietnam, about 24 percent of people are Internet users. In Malaysia it’s 63 percent and in Singapore 67 percent.
Thailand has been struggling with the deregulation of its telecoms industry since before the 1997-1998 Asian economic crisis. Progress has been painfully slow because of political obstacles and changes in government.
There are still potential stumbling blocks on the road to 3G: the NTC is in the process of consulting the government’s legal agency, the Council of State, over whether it even has the legal authority to hold the auction under the latest constitution. ($1 = 33.41 Baht) (Editing by Alan Raybould)