"Government must invest in this infrastructure."
Just four months after the eight-agency Joint Memorandum Circular cut bureaucratic red tape for telecommunications towers, the Anti-Red Tape Authority reported that 9,373 permits have been given to three telecommunications players.
After being plagued with a long and expensive gauntlet of national and local government permits, it took a global pandemic to jolt our government to finally act on this problem which, through the decades, has become a bureaucratic monster of 32 permits that can delay one tower project from months, and according to my source in the tower business, can stop construction for more than a year.
Before this joint memorandum, it was the DICT that sparked this push to streamline permitting processes when new guidelines for the common tower policy was released in August. When President Duterte signed the Bayanihan II last Friday, a provision proposed by Sen. Franklin Drilon has suspended the issuance of some requirements and permits for the construction of telecommunication towers over the next three years. For the telco industry and its stakeholders, that’s all of us, this is a rare but responsive policy reform and a uniquely welcome consequence of COVID-19. The transformative twist of this pandemic mess is that we now value the new reality of living in a digitally transformed way of life.
I remember that since the e-commerce law was enacted 20 years ago, it was a bit of a struggle to convince a mostly analog-based country stubbornly comfortable with the conventional face to face and paper-based business transactions in brick-and-mortar environments. Well, technology was quite different back then and not as accessible as it is now. All those hard-wired systems have been overtaken by fiber and wireless broadband networks at bandwidth speeds that can deliver the richest content on demand.
The Digital 2020 report of Hootsuite reported that as of January we have 173.2 million mobile connections which is equivalent to 158 percent of the total population. That means a substantial portion of our population are subscribed to two or more cell phone connections. The report also stated that 73 million internet users and Internet penetration is at 67 percent and growing fast.
So, when the lockdowns stopped everything in March, when all these users were forced to use their cell phones and computers to go online all at the same time, our country’s telco networks, and online services could have crashed. But it didn’t. Sure, there were hiccups and congestion issues, very understandable, but here we are, getting more connected. We have come a long way from those land line/party line years of analog telephone services.
Recent news reports have cited the National Telecommunications Commission represented by Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba cited Ookla results showing our internet speeds faster by 100 percent compared to past years.
The same findings were reported by the latest Mobile Network Experience Report by independent mobile analytics firm Opensignal saying telecom subscribers in the Philippines saw significant improvements from the fourth quarter of 2018 and third quarter of 2020.
The report also recognized Globe Telecom’s Mobile 4G availability which increased by 19.5 percentage points from 63.7 percent to 83.3 percent sustaining improvement for at least 10 consecutive quarters. Also, data average download speeds improved by 80.9 percent from 4.7 Mbps to 8.5 Mbps.
Though critics consider these figures are average and not enough, it is fair to note that at 80-percent 4G availability provided by both Smart and Globe Telecom, we are not far from the global average of 86 percent.
Commissioner Cordoba was on point in his recently published remarks pointing to the need for government spending for network infrastructure which is solely driven by the private sector in contrast to Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea where government is leading these investments.
True to their developmental nature and responding to the urgent demand for broadband services, the two telco giants are aggressively driving up their infrastructure spending to expand and upgrade services.
In the culminating session of the Pilipinas Conference 2020 organized by the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, Ayala Corporation Chairman and CEO Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala so rightly declared that for all institutions, there is no recourse to resolve the crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic but through digitalization.
I absolutely agree with Mr. Zobel de Ayala that we do not have a choice. This life-threatening virus that some historians say has already killed more Americans than World War I and Vietnam in even less than a year has profoundly disrupted every dimension of human existence.
Cloud based technologies have enabled us with safe and efficient connectivity to engage in all essential activities to survive, thrive and most certainly, indispensable in our recovery towards pre-pandemic prosperity. If the government’s vision is to deliver digital services to all, government must invest in our digital infrastructure.