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12th Anniversary Special

The History of the Internet in Thailand
By Thiravudh Khoman

It is said that those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it. Wariness, though, isn't the only reason to look to the past. Frequently, history provides a good explanation of why things are the way they are in the here and now. It allows past decisions, both good and bad, to be critiqued or lauded from an objective distance.

I recently came across a research paper titled "The History of the Internet in Thailand" authored by Sirin Palasri, Steven Huter and Zita Wenzel (The Network Startup Research Center, University of Oregon, 1999). The book does a good job of documenting the events leading to the birth and the initial growth of the internet in Thailand. It also discusses structural anomalies which may be causing problems for many ISP's, especially in the aftermath of Thailand's financial crisis.

What follows are highlights from the book which I've taken the liberty to paraphrase.

In The Beginning

The book credits Dr. Kanchana Kanchanasut, a professor at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Thailand, as being the first person to send an email from Thailand in 1986. Dr. Kanchana did her doctoral studies at the University of Melbourne (UM) in Australia and when she returned to Thailand, was disappointed that she could not maintain email contact with her colleagues in Australia.

With the help of Dr. Tomonori Kimura, an AIT colleague who also wanted to keep in touch with friends and colleagues in Tokyo, they used the Communications Authority of Thailand's (CAT) Thaipak X.25 service to "uucp" with servers at UM and the University of Tokyo. From this connection was sent the first email message.

In 1988, the Australian International National Development Plan provided technical assistance in setting up the first email network in Thailand. Dubbed "TCSNet" (Thai Computer Science Network), it comprised AIT, Prince Songkhla University (PSU), and Chulalongkorn University (CU). With AIT and PSU acting as gateways, academics could dial into either AIT or PSU, with UM polling AIT and PSU twice daily (via long distance dial-up) in order to pick up and/or deliver mail to the local servers.

In 1991, another host was established at Thammasat University (TU) under the supervision of Dr. Thaweesak Koanantakool with assistance from the Australian Academic Research Network. As with PSU, TU's server connected to UM using software called MHSNet.

With the growing use of email as well as interest in the underlying Unix operating system, Professor Pairash Thajchayapong suggested in 1992 that the MHSNet system used by PSU and TU and the UUCP system used by AIT be consolidated under a full Internet Protocol (IP). This merger resulted in the establishment of "Thaisarn" (Thai Social/Scientific Academic and Research Network). Funded by the national budget and strongly supported by computer vendors such as IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Hewlett-Packard, Thaisarn grew rapidly, pulling in numerous government organizations and many other Thai universities.

The Volunteer Ethic

According to the book, much of what had been achieved to this point was due to a dedicated and knowledgeable group of people who were willing to work for a common good. Trin Tantsetthi, for one, was able to spend much of his time on internet related activities thanks to his employer DEC. His work eventually gave birth to Thailand's first ftp, gopher, news and web servers.

Besides Trin, many other volunteers worked hand-in-hand under the banner of the NECTEC Email Working Group, providing technical expertise and helping to support the growing community of users. For their toil, they were each given a free email account on NECTEC's server. CU also served as a breeding ground for future engineers, many of whom ended up at NECTEC after their graduation. Unshackled by government bureaucracy, NECTEC was a fertile ground for ideas and the volunteer corps took it upon themselves to build anything they felt was necessary to improve the network. No doubt, this was facilitated by the fact that many if not most key Unix tools were easily available over the internet.

ISP Beginnings

The telecommunications industry in Thailand is run as a monopoly with the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT) overseeing the domestic telephone network and the Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT) regulating international calls and circuits to the internet.

In early 1995, growing demand for internet services resulted in the establishment of Thailand's first commercial ISP, Internet Thailand, a joint venture of the TOT and CAT (with 33% shareholding each) and the NSTDA (the legal entity of NECTEC, with 34%). CAT took this opportunity to establish guidelines for the setup of future ISP's, being:

  1. Applicants must be from the telecommunications or computing industry.
  2. The new ISP must be a joint venture with CAT, with CAT receiving 35% of total equity FREE (33% for CAT itself, 2% for CAT's staff).
  3. The new ISP must buy leased circuits to the internet from CAT.
  4. CAT reserves the right to send its personnel to work for the new ISP.
  5. CAT may unilaterally veto any decision by the new ISP's Board of Directors.
  6. The new ISP agrees to transfer ownership of all networking equipment (e.g. routers and modems) to CAT at the outset.
  7. CAT will set the rate structures that ISPs may charge its customers.

During 1995, several more ISP's were approved by CAT, these being KSC Comnet, Loxinfo, and ISP's belonging to the Wattachak and Advanced Research Groups.

Causes and Effects

Depending on your viewpoint, the above guidelines may have either been a reflection CAT's desire to lend its "good offices" to the newly created ISP's or an attempt by CAT to maintain if not extend its monopoly status. Or perhaps both.

The first time I became aware of these guidelines - and I doubt most internet users are aware of them - I was aghast at how one-sided and burdensome they were. Indeed, the book posits that CAT's involvement had unintended detrimental effects. Rates charged to individual and corporate users are on average, several times that of other Asian countries. Looking at countries with similar GDP's, The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) found Thailand to be 1-2 years behind its neighbours. Looking at the number of hosts per GDP as an indicator, Thailand ranks in the same group as the Philippines and Indonesia with less than 50 hosts/GDP. Meanwhile, Malaysia's figures are 5.5 times's that, Singapore 8 times that, and Asean as a whole, 3 times that.

The burden of CAT's free shares forced ISP's to pass on the extra costs to users, and CAT's limits on data traffic forced numerous websites to switch to U.S. ISP's to avoid massive excess charges. In 1996, CAT reduced its charges to ISP's by 25% and encouraged ISP's to reduce user charges as well. Unfortunately, ISP payments to international internet access providers weren't reduced and in fact increased significantly due to the Baht devaluation. The result of this was that many ISP's suffered serious liquidity problems if not outright losses.

Unfortunately, the option to increase capital is similarly laden with problems: someone will need to pay for CAT's new shares so that their shareholding isn't diluted. As if capital increases weren't difficult enough in these financially trying times, the distortions caused by CAT's free shares simply compound the problems. It seems inevitable that CAT will have to retract itself from these ISP's sometime in the future, but how? Easy come, easy go? Not very likely.

Final Notes

Although this is a fairly short book, I've still skimmed over much of the material. As such, I highly recommend anyone who has the slightest interest in how Thailand "got connected" to read it. As an academic paper, I doubt if it can be found in any bookstore, but thankfully, The Network Startup Research Center's website (https://www.nsrc.org) has the text online available for downloading in various formats.

The English version of the book is available in HTML, Adobe Acrobat (PDF) and PostScript formats, while the Thai version is only available in Acrobat and PostScript. I recommend that you choose the PDF versions (702kb for English, 1.88mb in Thai). (Note: If you don't have Adobe's Acrobat Reader, you can download it for free from Adobe's website at https://www.adobe.com.) I strongly suggest that you avoid the HTML version, which is made up of scans of individual pages stitched together with HTML. The text is much less readable than the PDF version.

(Thanks to Dr. Kanchana of AIT for sparing me two of her hard copies - after the proverbial dog "ate" the first one - and for that fateful first email! Thanks also to all of the Thai internet pioneers for their work and dedication which brought us this valuable resource. Finally, thanks to all the local and external sponsors who provided the initial resources and support without which these endeavours may never have gotten off the ground.)

Copyright © 1998-2001, Thiravudh Khoman