FOR the past couple of weeks, the public’s imagination has been charged by the rumor that Australian telecom giant Telstra will be arriving in the Philippine market any day now, where it will partner with San Miguel Corporation to give the two lousy choices we now have—PLDT and Globe—a run for their money by providing us lightning-fast, reliable, and reasonably-priced internet and cellular phone service.
The enthusiasm is quite understandable, because the telecommunications services that are made available to us at present by the duopoly (who make the feeble attempt to create the illusion of choice by peddling their wares under a variety of brands) are embarrassingly bad. The Philippine market desperately wants and needs fast, reliable, and reasonably priced services but is only offered choices that are the polar opposite of those things. Neither provider has the capability—or is being compelled to have the intention, thanks to a completely ineffective regulatory structure—to supply anything better.
Thus, even an unsubstantiated rumor of uncertain origin suggesting that a white knight from a foreign land will soon arrive to save the day is accepted as certain fact, even though the few bits of actual evidence clearly indicate that it is at this point no more than a vague possibility.
Last week, the local tech website Unbox.ph did a good job of legitimate journalism and flushed out the real story, which bears repeating here since the rumor mill is still operating at top speed. Telstra is not at this point “planning” to enter the Philippine market; we know this, because Unbox.ph writer John Nieves took the radical step of contacting the company’s media relations office and asking them a direct question. Telstra has not set up a Philippine headquarters near the Mall of Asia (the odd-looking building that prominently displays the company’s name is its call center, jointly operated with Teletech, part of a BPO operation that has been here since 2013); it has not earmarked $1 billion to invest in building a network here (no monetary figures have actually been discussed by the concerned parties).
What has taken place, according to Telstra, is some preliminary discussion about an opportunity that seems promising, but may or may not be feasible. Present circumstances suggest that it will not be; for one thing, Telstra’s apparent choice of partner is a little dubious; SMC has money, but nothing in the way of useful experience in the telecom sector, and a less than impressive recent record when it comes to projects outside its core food and beverage competence (e.g., Philippine Airlines). That could all be worked out, of course, but then the partnership would have to contend with laws and regulations that are largely designed to protect the incumbents, and would likely require legislative action to change.
Even if all those challenges are overcome, the reward to Philippine telecom consumers might not be as attractive as they hope. While it is probably fair to say that Telstra is several orders of magnitude more capable than the feeble providers we are currently forced to tolerate, its reputation in its home market is apparently not universally favorable; on the Australia-based website Product Review, the company is given a dismal 1.5 rating (out of 5) by its customers, with recent comments (the ones posted on Nov. 2 and 3) being “The Worst Customer Service Ever!;” “Useless Foreign Tech People;” “Quite possibly the worst company I’ve ever dealt with;” and “Customer Service is Terrible.”
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In the middle of last month, a Times editorial sought to explain why the penchant of President BS Aquino 3rd for casually declaring holidays (specifically, a four-day holiday during the upcoming APEC summit) is creating havoc for Philippine businesses. In an ironic sign that Aquino couldn’t do the right thing if he was already in bed with it, however, professor and all-round keen observer Antonio P. Contreras in a Facebook post pointed out that the president’s declining to declare a holiday on November 2—All Soul’s Day, this past Monday—was an apparent violation of the law.
Contreras cited Republic Act 9492, which specifies, “In the event the holiday falls on a Wednesday, the holiday will be observed on the Monday of that week. If the holiday falls on a Sunday, the holiday will be observed on the Monday that follows.” Since Sunday, November 1 (All Saints’ Day) was a holiday, the legal observance should have fallen on Monday, which would entitle workers on that day to holiday pay per the legally-binding Department of Labor guidelines.
Aquino’s slip-up may have serious implications; Contreras suggested that workers could claim extra pay for having worked on that day, and that the government would ultimately be liable for the millions of pesos that would involve. “Can they sue the government?” Contreras asked, somewhat rhetorically. Personally, I hope someone tries; I’d like to see what happens.