Thailand’s Digital Divide: Leave No One Behind
Thailand has a developed Internet and digital infrastructure which has helped many Thais tide through the privations of Covid-19. But more can be done to extend such services to more Thais, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
On 16 June 2022, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha presided over the opening of Thailand’s “5G Summit 2022” at the Centara Grand Hotel in Bangkok. The premier said that Thailand’s extensive 5G infrastructure had facilitated the growth of digital startups and a digital workforce. He emphasised that collaborations among Huawei Technologies, the Digital Economy Promotion Agency in the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, and other public and private sector partners would “help enable Thailand to become the leader of 5G technology.”
Thailand, along with other countries in Southeast Asia like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam, is known for its digitally active citizens, with some of the highest proportions of social media users in the world. According to data from 2021, approximately 56.3 million Facebook users are located in Thailand, or what some outlets interpret as 80.5 per cent of the country’s population. Significant smartphone penetration is most likely to influence social media use, with studies estimating that 65.5 per cent of the Thai population uses a smartphone at least once a month. Government agencies and private investors sometimes use these figures and others to bolster techno-utopic claims that Thailand’s impressive digital infrastructure is “unmatched” in Southeast Asia despite similarly impressive digital networks in Singapore and Malaysia. They hail the region as a “bright spot” for tech companies, echoing Prayut’s remarks at the 5G Summit.
Such celebratory explorations of the future of Thailand’s telecommunications and digital realms, or what the Bangkok government sometimes brands as “Thailand 4.0”, reflect the increasing necessity of these technologies not only for startups and entrepreneurs but also for all Thai people. Many have endured the multifarious hardships wrought by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic due to their ability to access computers with stable internet connections and smartphones with sufficient data plans. These technologies have made possible everything from remote work to virtual learning to contactless banking and on-demand food delivery in all 77 provinces, among other functions that became crucial as lockdowns were imposed no less in Thailand than around the world. Digital adaptations that minimise in-person activities have rapidly transformed social and economic practices and behaviours at a granular level — yet many still do not benefit from their spread, raising crucial questions about the impacts of Thailand’s persistent digital divide in regions beyond Bangkok.
While the assessments of Thailand’s digital sophistication are largely on target, some important points are worth considering. Opening an account on Facebook and using a smartphone at least once a month are not necessarily indicators of easy access to the Internet, mobile technologies, and computers. Possessing a smartphone does not guarantee that one also has a robust data plan, and having Internet in the home does not mean that computers are available to those living there. The type of internet connection matters, too – more expensive fixed-broadband subscriptions better support the bandwidth required by the video conferencing platforms that are now mandatory in schools and workplaces. Issues of access are thus an acute concern when it comes to education after more than two years of interrupted and often remote learning for Thai students. A 2021 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) study on e-learning in Thailand during the pandemic found significant variation by geographical region and socio-economic status. Schools in Northern and Northeastern Thailand, for example, have lower rates of internet connectivity than schools in Central and Southern Thailand, and provinces with a higher GPP (gross provincial product) per capita had a higher percentage of schools with Internet – hewing to, and reinforcing, “traditional economic fault lines.”
Digital adaptations that minimise in-person activities have rapidly transformed social and economic practices and behaviours at a granular level — yet many still do not benefit from their spread, raising crucial questions about the impacts of Thailand’s persistent digital divide in regions beyond Bangkok.
These patterns are borne out in internet connectivity and computer access rates at the household level. Northeastern Thailand has the lowest number of internet users in 2019 at 56.8 per cent, followed by Northern Thailand (59.6 per cent) and Southern Thailand (65.2 per cent). The figures are significantly lower than the 85.3 per cent in Bangkok. Only 59 per cent of households in provinces in the bottom quartile of GPP per capita have an Internet connection in the home, compared to 79 per cent in the top quartile. In Northeast Thailand in 2019, 20.1 per cent of people aged six and older had access to a computer, compared to 43 per cent in Bangkok.
The data gathered by the National Statistical Office and analysed by the ITU have relevance in areas beyond education. They illustrate how millions of people across Thailand are left behind by e-learning initiatives that require a computer and internet access. Members of this group are also left behind by pandemic economic relief programmes such as Khon la khrueng, or “Let’s Go Halves”, in which the government subsidises 50 per cent of food, drink, and general goods purchases for participants for up to 150 baht (US$4.20) per day. Participants must have consistent data plans or available Wi-Fi connections to make QR code payments via digital wallet banking applications. The confusing interfaces and application procedures in such programmes illuminate the need for different forms of digital education for people of varying age groups and literacy backgrounds.
Some government initiatives acknowledge and seek to address these gaps. The Village Broadband Internet Project, or Net Pracharat (Net for the People), launched in 2017, endeavours to expand the reach high-speed Internet services to every village in the country. High-speed fibre-optic cable networks with free public Wi-Fi hotspots have been installed in 24,700 pilot villages around Thailand. During the pandemic, however, the use of Net Pracharat declined due to fears of Covid-19 transmission in public spaces, revealing the importance of extending rural connectivity projects to individual households. As the Thai state and private entities like those who gathered for the “5G summit 2022” work to grow Thailand’s digital infrastructures, they must consider who these infrastructures are being designed for, and how to close the digital divide to achieve a better future for all Thai people.
Alexandra Dalferro was Visiting Fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.