By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter
BETTER CONNECTIVITY in remote areas is expected to be achievable with stimulus legislation shortening the permit waiting times for cellular towers and triggering a “Build, Build, Build”-type boom for telecommunications infrastructure, an industry official said.
“In 2020, we might exceed the number of sites we added last year. The passage of the Bayanihan Act II will simplify further this process. It is a real window of three years that will usher in a very real Build, Build, Build for telcos and digital infrastructure,” Globe Telecom, Inc. Chief Technology Officer Gil B. Genio said at a BusinessWorld Insights forum Wednesday.
The President recently signed Republic Act No. 11494 or the Bayanihan to Recover As One Act (Bayanihan II), an economic stimulus program that also granted the government the power to simplify the permit process for building cell towers.
A measure amending the 83-year-old Public Service Act (PSA) to ease foreign ownership restrictions in certain sectors, including telecommunications, is also expected to benefit the country in the long term, as it will allow more competition, according to Senate Public Services Committee Chairperson Grace S. Poe-Llamanzares, although safeguards have to be clearly determined to avoid any single country from gaining control of the industry for the sake of national security.
The Anti-Red Tape Authority is also flexing its powers under Republic Act 11032, the Ease of Doing Business Law, by deeming as approved any telecom permits left pending after seven days.
Mr. Genio said that if Globe, PLDT, Inc.’s wireless arm Smart Communications, Inc., DITO Telecommunity Corp., and the authorized common tower firms can build about 50 to 60 thousand cell towers in the next three years, the country will get a workable level of penetration for mobile internet.
“I am actually optimistic and hopeful that we will get there,” Mr. Genio said.
PLDT-Smart Senior Vice-President for Network Planning and Engineering Mario G. Tamayo said: “We recognize that there are still opportunities to have more of our countrymen connected and the demand will only continue to increase, and that is why we continue to invest. Our main aim is to bring the Philippines, with the help of our government, to the level of the best in the region.”
He said PLDT and Smart are in talks with some tower firms authorized by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), as part of their effort to expand their services to more areas, especially remote areas.
“We started talking and we are setting to pilot about 200 sites,” Mr. Tamayo said.
“PLDT and Smart will continue to invest in building the network. In terms of affordability, we are trying to balance the needs of our customers and their capability to avail of our services. We always make sure that we offer reliable services. Expect improvement in our services this year and next year,” he added.
Ms. Poe-Llamanzares expressed disappointment about the results of the 2019 National ICT Household Survey, which found that the majority of Filipinos have no access to the internet, especially in the Bangsamoro region.
“The average speed in highly urbanized cities registers from 4.59 megabits per second (mbps) to 5.54 mbps; whereas in rural areas, it registers at 2 mbps in Luzon and Visayas, and 1 mbps in Mindanao,” she added.
She identified four issues that need to be addressed by the government and the private sector, such as the lack of infrastructure due to expensive and prolonged network rollouts; the lack of competition; a shortage of spectrum frequency and lack of transparency in their allocation; and a lack of performance standards against which service providers can be held to account.
“It has been my advocacy to allow foreign ownership in most of the industries in the country except for power distribution and transmission and water distribution and sewerage services,” she said, noting that the bill amending the PSA “seeks to encourage more players to come into the Philippines.”
The senator added that Globe and Smart are trying to fulfill the country’s needs, but if more competition is allowed, the public will have more options and the industry will be forced to compete and provide better service.
The bill, however, has “reached some sort of a halt at the Senate because of the timing,” she said, adding that there are concerns about allowing liberalization to happen “at this point in our political history,” as one particular country “might dominate” and “jeopardize our national security.”
“Without mentioning the country, alam na ninyo kung ano ang ating pinag-uusapan dito (we all know what I’m referring to),” Ms. Poe-Llamanzares said, alluding to concerns about the Chinese stake in DITO.
The debate now, she said, is centered on how lawmakers are going to put more safeguards in the bill, “so that we will not be threatened by one country or just a few countries dominating or probably dictating the course of the economy.”
“We are putting in safeguards which will allow the President to cancel any contract that might prove to be a national security threat. There has to be proof that there is a national security threat, and we have to list down what those conditions are,” she said.
DICT Deputy Spokesperson Adrian G. Echaus asked for support for his department’s initiative in accelerating the implementation of the National Broadband Program, which involves the construction of a national fiber optic backbone and securing additional internet capacity through the Luzon bypass infrastructure.
He added that the department also hopes to provide next year free WiFi to 5,100 more sites, including government hospitals, national and local government offices, public libraries, public parks, plazas, public schools, state universities and colleges, TESDA institutions, and transport terminals.
Mr. Echaus said the department’s Free WiFi project currently services 5,046 sites.
Hastings Holdings, Inc., a unit of PLDT Beneficial Trust Fund subsidiary MediaQuest Holdings, Inc., has a stake in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls.