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Will 2018 Usher In Better Internet Connection For Filipinos?

Gone are the days when a semblance of a healthy competition is present in Philippine telecommunication companies providing internet for Filipino households. Now, there’s basically just two players after the duopolies Globe and Smart started eating the other major providers: Smart-PLDT-Sun and Globe-Bayantel.

With this kind of telco landscape in the country, we can’t really be surprised if prices are continuing to rise while internet speed and reliability continue to throttle. There is little to no incentive for these companies to up their game since they basically dominate the marketplace.

But the hopes are up after President Rodrigo Duterte expedited the process in December for a China-based telco to enter the country. According to Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque during a Malacañang press briefing on December 19, Duterte wants a new telecom company ready to offer its services by the first quarter of 2018.

And that certainly bodes well for the millions of Filipino consumers who have been relying helplessly on the two telecom giants for internet. Internet service continues to be unreliable in farther flung areas, and even accomplishes to be terrible in some places at the heart of the metro where signal should be given utmost importance, given the amount of economic activity that happens in the city.

The first on the list is telecommunication company China Telecom, who has expressed interest in setting up a new internet service in the country. While there are no more recent updates regarding the status of the deal, according to Malacañang, China Telecom has not expressed objection to Philippine business legislations so far—which could mean that the first quarter target could be achievable, if all goes smoothly. One of the provisions in the 1987 Constitution that was raised as a possible deterrent to China Telecom is the law that restricts foreign ownership of a telecommunication company in the country to 40 percent. There has been no qualms about this, as far as we know.

We can’t be certain just yet, however. When the San Miguel and Telstra deal broke down in 2016, a lot of people were disappointed. So this time, everyone is keeping their hopes up; their expectations, not too much.

On the brighter side, it looks like the commotion has finally gotten to PLDT Inc. (mother company of mobile unit Smart Communications Inc.). To welcome 2018, the PLDT Group announced that they have signed a $28.5-million partnership deal with another Chinese information and communications technology (ICT) company, Huawei.

Huawei is a global ICT solutions provider and has been gaining much ground in the Philippines for the past years for its promising and affordable line of smartphones. Under the multi-million deal that solidifies a 15-month agreement, Huawei will be improving wireless services of PLDT, Smart, Sun, and TNT.

According to PLDT-Smart Public Affairs Group head Ramon Isberto, first on the list is for Huawei to improve Smart’s online charging platform and electronic loading. Huawei will also help PLDT consolidate their many brands into one platform and bundled services to be able to offer better value-for-money deals for consumers. The Chinese ICT giant will also aid in the development of more efficient network operations and maintenance, which could probably improve service and connectivity of the PLDT brands.

In the case of Globe Telecom, the company announced also back in December that it was ready to activate more than 16 terabits per second (Tbps) through its international connectivity capacity. If Globe is able to provide that fast an internet service, what’s stopping them?

Well, apparently, the Ayala-led telco blames government processes and decision-making for its inability to provide better and faster internet service.

In a statement, Globe president and chief executive officer Ernest Cu said, “Our biggest hurdle in delivering consistently good internet (service) is the cumbersome number of permits and right of way issues that prevent us from building the last mile connectivity that would allow world class internet services to be enjoyed by the ordinary household or any person using a mobile phone. We have repeatedly called on the government to help address these issues that are prevalent at the local government level. Now with more people adopting to internet use much faster than the infrastructure can be built, then the problem gets exacerbated.”

According to estimates, the 21,000 cell sites in the Philippines provide internet at a user-per-cell site ratio of 1:2,244. The poor number of cell sites in the country, Cu said, has been part because of the tedious cell tower-building process. As an example, Cu explained that for one cell site to be built, Globe has to secure at least 25 permits from the local government who has jurisdiction over the area, and that processing can take at least eight long months.

But with the growing demand for internet service, something has to be done right now. According to the original statement of Malacañang regarding the entering Chinese telcos, all relevant government agencies are mandated to approve all licenses and applications within 7 days of complete requirement submission. If the national government is this committed to bringing in foreign internet providers and improve internet service in the country, then maybe they should start extending this expedited process to local providers, as well—lest we all bask in a continued kbps-slow internet speed that’s not worthy of the “region’s fastest growing economy” that we claim ourselves to be.