Connecting the ASEAN society – one call at a time

Just one year from now and ASEAN will officially enter economic integration, when skilled labour, investment and services will flow freely among the 10 member countries, making it one of the most competitive single-market regions in the world.   
 
Yet ASEAN is still far from true connectivity for its people. Infrastructure across the region in terms of railroads and telecommunications still has a long way to go. According to ASEAN’s Master Plan on Connectivity, the bloc still needs to complete over 4,000 km of railroads by 2015, and speed up ICT infrastructure and the energy sector to make the region fully integrated, to the benefit of its common citizens as well as business. 
 
One thing that ASEAN can immediately learn from the EU, however, is the Union’s ongoing effort to reduce mobile roaming charges within the 28 member countries, plus three in the European Economic Area. (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) Doing so, experts say, would greatly contribute to social cohesion; and encourage competition in the telecom sector as well as growth in investment and tourism. 
 
Regulation for fairer charges and consumers' rights
 
Since 2007, the EU commission responsible for communications has initiated regulating measures that would set a price ceiling for international roaming, data roaming and SMS within the bloc. Over the past 6 years, the price per minute for outgoing calls and SMS has gone down by around 60%, while from July 2014, consumers will no longer have to pay fees for incoming calls, compared to the previous charge of 0.24 Euro cents per minute. 
 
“Everyone loves the benefits of EU price cuts to roaming. It is the one thing even ‘Eurocritics’ agree the EU did well. And it could never have happened without the EU,” said Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission on Digital Agenda, in her speech addressing EU consumers’ rights committee last year in Brussels. 
 
Besides regulating roaming fees, the EU also intervenes for consumer protection, stipulating that service providers must send an SMS notifying roaming prices whenever a mobile user uses signals from another country, as well as provide options for users to choose operators for roaming, measures which were not regulated before 2010.  
 
This way, the commission said it could prevent users from receiving “bill shock” after travelling abroad, and provide more convenience to consumers since they do not need to buy new SIM cards when they travel in EU countries. 
 
Panu Wongcha-um, a Bangkok-based correspondent from Singapore’s Channel News Asia, is one of the people who said he could benefit from an EU-like mobile roaming scheme. 
 
Panu received a telephone bill of around 15,000 baht (500 USD) after he spent one week in Indonesia covering the 2011 ASEAN Summit in Jakarta. Buying a local SIM card was difficult and took too much time, he said, for the demanding nature of the work, sending back timely coverage. 
 
“So I just ended up roaming with my Thai SIM card,” Panu said. “My job requires on-the-spot convenience in communicating, that’s why I was willing to use it.” 
 
His earlier 10-day reporting mission in Burma with another Thai TV agency also cost him around 20,000 baht (666 USD) while another work-related trip in Viet Nam incurred a bill of about 9,000-baht (300 USD), most of which he said he ended up paying out of his own pocket due to inconvenience in the reimbursement process. 
 
Paving the way for ASEAN
 
Despite differences in telecom systems and infrastructure development in ASEAN countries, regulation of mobile roaming in ASEAN may not be too farfetched. Already in 2011, Singapore and Malaysia signed an agreement to reduce voice roaming fees by 30% and SMS fees by up to 50% for mobile users from the two countries. 
 
In 2012, Indonesia’s Communication and Information Minister said he hoped to make the ASEAN states roaming-free. Not only would it benefit the citizens of member countries, he said, but it also would help Indonesians who live in border areas where local signals are weak.  
 
ASEAN, with financial and technical support from the EU, has taken into account the need to make roaming charges fair, as part of its ICT Master Plan 2015, among other plans such as spectrum harmonization and bridging the digital divide.  
 
Karine Valin, ICT expert from READI, ASEAN advisory body with support from the EU, said despite EU-style regulation may be impossible, but there are certain measures that can be implemented immediately, such as SMS notifications as anti-shock measures and bi-lateral agreements between service providers to reduce roaming charges.

“The issue of currencies and frequencies certainly create difficulties but these can be overcome through transparency measures in the case of different currencies,” said Valin. “However, it is the lack of a central Regulatory agency and a central legislative body which is probably the biggest single obstacle.”

 
Although infrastructure development in the rural areas of some member countries is still in the making, the use of mobiles, especially smartphones, is surging in ASEAN markets. According to a survey by Accenture, a global consulting firm, smartphone use is expected to grow 37% in Vietnam, 31% in Indonesia and 27% in Thailand by 2016. 
 
And while internet penetration rates in the region vary greatly from country to country, reports say that the number of users in Asia accessing the internet through mobiles already outnumbers those accessing through desktop computers, due to a less developed broadband infrastructure. 
 
With more people in the region using their phones for banking transactions and commercial activities, this could provide more opportunities for businesses and prove beneficial to consumers, if a fair mobile roaming scheme, along with other parts of the ICT Master Plan 2015, were to succeed.   
 
ASEAN must act fast
 
Agreeing with Valin from READI, Wason Liwlompaisarn, an IT expert and founder of Thailand’s tech news website Blognone, said since institutional and infrastructure integration in ASEAN is still very loose compared to that of the EU, it could take years until regional regulation materializes.
 
A more likely possibility is that operators will start lowering roaming charges before regulation takes place, he said. That way, telecom providers could gain revenues from greater use resulting from lower charges, instead of driving consumers away completely due to overly high roaming fees. 
 
“Mobile users would definitely benefit from this. But if the process was too slow, the true gain would not be as great,” he said, explaining that trends for voice calling have decreased significantly and been replaced by the use of social media apps for communication.  
 
“At a certain point, commuting users would end up buying local SIM cards and use apps to call or chat with each other under local data plans.”
 
The EU’s statement on its digital plan, #ConnectedContinent, noted “Today consumers pay up to 1000% profit markups on SMS within Europe. It’s not fair and it makes no sense in a European Single Market. That’s why we are planning to change it.”
 
Like its slogan “The EU: making life better,” the bloc proves it can show people that regional integration can make concrete, positive changes to their lives. ASEAN should learn from the good examples of Europe and make ASEAN a truly people-centered continent. 
 
 
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The author would like to express special thanks for the EU Centre in Singapore in producing this article
 

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