BANGKOK Mobile data usage in Thailand has surged since a military coup last month as Thais swap information and search the Internet for reliable news, providing an unexpected boon to network operators hit by depressed consumption.
Data usage spiked on the day of the coup, May 22, and the day after, and usage remains high as the military rows back on threats to restrict social media.
The outlook for Thailand's mobile operators will further improve in the second half as the military junta running the country implements economic reforms to restore confidence after months of political turmoil, according to analysts.
Yingluck Shinawatra was prime minister until May 7, when a court found her guilty of abuse of power and she stepped down. The army toppled the remnants of her government on May 22, saying it needed to restore order after bursts of deadly protests since November brought the economy close to recession.
The military government said it has moved quickly to pay billions of dollars in arrears owed to rice farmers by the state.
"Second-half earnings should be much higher than the first after farmers got paid under the rice-buying scheme and they will have more money to spend including buying new phones," said Chatchai Jindarat, an analyst at Maybank Kim Eng Securities.
Almost everyone has a mobile phone in Thailand and data services are driving revenue growth for operators at a time when revenue from voice service has slowed.
Nearly 40 million phones are used to access the Internet, with many users turning to chatting via social media and messaging apps rather than calls.
Facebook is the most popular social media in Thailand with 24 million users, and 21 million access it on their phone. Instant messaging service Line has about 24 million users in Thailand, its second-largest market after Japan.
Advanced Info Service Pcl (AIS), the country's largest mobile operator, said data usage on its network was 30 percent higher than normal immediately after the coup, while voice usage jumped 40 percent.
The second-largest mobile operator, Total Access Communication (TAC), saw a 25 percent jump in data usage on its network.
AIS, 21 percent owned by Singapore Telecommunications Ltd, has nearly 50 percent of the Thai mobile market. TAC, controlled by Norway's Telenor, has about 30 percent.
RISING PAGE VIEWS
On May 22, the number of page views on Internet jumped 13 percent from the day before to 178.3 million hits after television and radio stations were temporarily taken off air.
The number of page views rose 9.3 percent to a record 194.85 million hits the next day, according to www.truehits.net, which gathers Internet-related data in Thailand.
Average daily page views hit 164.77 million in the week of May 19-25, against 144.51 million the week before the coup and 147.35 million the week after, according to Reuters calculations.
Traffic has remained high, and on Wednesday saw 142.11 million hits, up from an average of 136.8 million in April but a little lower than May's average 147 million.
The military authorities are struggling to control activity online, where people have used social media to organize protests and express opposition to the coup. They have warned about the spread of what they consider provocative material and have asked service providers to help control it.
Army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said the military had no plan to block social media but would target websites or social media accounts that contained provocative messages that stoked conflict or had content disrespectful towards the monarchy.
(Additional reporting by Viparat Jantraprap; Editing by Alan Raybould and Ryan Woo)