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NBTC must play to win

Members of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) will meet today to decide whether to foot the 1.6-billion-baht bill to broadcast the 2022 Fifa World Cup, as demanded by the government.

Amid the rise in public and household debt, and with much hardship in society, we can only hope that good sense prevails.

The issue has become the latest hot potato for the embattled NBTC members. Last week, it was lambasted for not doing enough to prevent the merger of two major telecom operators despite consumers complaining the deal will lead to a trade monopoly and possibly higher rates.

To resolve the latest bone of contention, the NBTC may have to fork out money from the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Research and Development Fund for Public Interest (BTRDF) to fund all 64 football matches from Nov 20 to Dec 18.

Money from the BTRDF, derived from the fees collected from commercial telecom and media TV and radio businesses, has been used to finance educational and non-profit media projects such as youth programmes and media content for underprivileged groups, for example, the fees for sign language translations or captions for audiences with hearing problems. There is no clause for it to fund the broadcasting of sports. Moreover, there is only 2 billion baht left in the fund for this year.

In the past, private companies would bid for licences from Fifa and profit from advertisement sales and paid subscriptions.

However, a few years ago the NBTC prescribed the so-called “Must Have” and “Must Carry”regulations to deal with conflicts relating to broadcasting licences for sporting events.

The rules demand that seven sporting events, including the Asean Games, the Olympics and Paralympics, and especially the Fifa World Cup finals, must be broadcast on TV so the whole public can watch them for free. It is worth noting that in 2014 the NBTC paid over 400 million baht to obtain a local licence for that year’s Fifa World Cup.

In lieu of a private sector bid for this year’s event, the NBTC was dealt a quasi-order from the government to cover the cost of the broadcasting licence, which during the last-minute bidding skyrocketed to 1.6 billion baht.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon reportedly ordered the Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT) to get the money from the NBTC. He vowed that Thai football fans would be able to watch all the matches live as the government would buy the broadcasting rights.

Instead of lavishing a small fortune to indulge in a month of football mania, however, the NBTC should have the stomach to reject the government’s irrational demand. If the government is adamant to have the public watch the World Cup, it must come up with the money or seek a special budget in parliament.

It’s also about time for the NBTC to rewrite its “Must Have” policy, to avoid any problems and let private companies and the market get the job done without exploiting consumers.

The Fifa World Cup has always been a spectacular event, one that unites billions around the world as nations battle it out for glory on the field. Nonetheless, forking out 1.6 billion baht of public money for a month of football is quite a gambit. Hopefully, the NBTC doesn’t end up scoring an own goal.

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