THE National Telecommunications Commission (NTC)’s vague response to the sale of San Miguel Corp. (SMC)’s telecommunications business to the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT) and Globe Telecoms (Globe) only goes to show that the nation’s telecoms regulator has turned into a passive and impotent observer instead of the proactive public watchdog that it is supposed to be.
As a brief backgrounder, SMC used to hold 90 MHz of spectrum in the 700-Mhz radio frequency band, with 80 MHz assigned to Wi-Tribe Telecommunications (a unit of Liberty Telecoms) and 10 MHz to High Frequency Telecommunications. Liberty Telecoms and High Frequency are, in turn, owned by Vega Telecom, a wholly owned company of SMC. With the buyout of SMC’s shares in Vega Telecom, PLDT and Globe effectively acquired the valuable spectrum previously assigned to the food and beverage giant.
Two days after the news of the buyout appeared in the front page, NTC Deputy Commissioner Edgardo Cabarios announced that the telecoms regulator was giving the country’s two biggest operators a maximum of one year to “significantly” improve their internet services. Otherwise, he warned the NTC would revoke their takeover of the valuable 700 MHz spectrum. Cabarios also said he “expected” Globe and PLDT to increase internet speed from the current 1Mbps to an average of 5Mbps in three to six months at no additional cost to consumers.
But NTC isn’t fooling anyone.
If the NTC was really bent on improving internet services, it should have required—not merely “expected”—local telcos to meet a certain minimum speed within the next 12 months. By not setting any standard, the NTC practically left it to the telcos to determine what constitutes a “significant” improvement of internet speed. The NTC’s move to keep its hands off the controversial buyout is what our colleagues in the legal profession would call as “bakla.” No offense meant to the LGBT community.
Clearly, all that the telecoms agency did is pass the buck to the local telcos to comply with incoming President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for faster and affordable internet services when—as the manager of the nation’s radio spectrum and regulator of the telecoms industry—it should have been at the forefront of regulatory crusade for better internet services.
This is why Cabarios’ bravado is really just for show. It’s a ploy by NTC officials to hopefully convince Duterte that the agency is doing its job. Cabarios admitted as much when he said that the NTC’s decision “is in response to the order issued [by the president-elect]for telcos to improve Internet services the soonest time possible.”
Truth is, were it not for Duterte’s warning that the local telcos better shape up and improve internet speeds or face competition from new foreign players, the NTC probably would not even have the balls to demand that the country’s biggest telcos to effect a “significant improvement” in internet speeds in a year.
In fact, we remember that it was only around nine months ago, in Aug. 2015, when the NTC issued Memorandum Circular 07-08-2015 setting the minimum broadband speed in the country at 256 Kbps (kilobytes not megabytes, mind you). So while our Asean neighbors like Singapore were enjoying broadband speeds as fast as 118 Mbps (yes, megabytes), the country’s telecoms regulator pegged the country’s broadband speed to that of a circa 2001 DSL connection—in kilobytes!!
For NTC and Cabarios to do a complete about-face (or more like a 360-degree acrobatic flip) by requiring local telcos “to increase the speed at no additional cost to consumers” is nothing short of a miracle. Hallelujah!! That or the epiphany of NTC commissioners are really “in aid of retention.” It surely does wonders when their necks are on the chopping block come June 30.
And to think that just a few months ago, Cabarios and company were singing an entirely different tune.
Remember the public outcry last September about the country’s expensive internet rates? The NTC said then that “consumers have no choice but to bear with higher charges in exchange for faster internet speed.” Cabarios explained that “the internet connection provided by telecommunication companies is considered as a value added and deregulated service,” and, therefore, “the NTC has no power to dictate the charges for such services.”
Lo and behold! Nine months later, the NTC is threatening to revoke the permits of local telcos if they are unable to “significantly improve” internet speeds in six months with no price increase to consumers. Kaya ninyo naman pala, eh, bakit hindi niyo pa ginawa dati?!! If NTC officials can compel local telcos to provide faster internet speeds without increasing surfing charges, why have they only done this now?! What have they been doing the past six years aside from sitting in their air-conditioned offices?!
As with many other government regulators, the NTC has been “captured” by powerful and influential players in the telecoms industry. Filipinos are aware that the telecoms agency is working for the interests of industry bigwigs whom it is supposed to be regulating rather than the interest of the public at large.
If Duterte truly wants faster and affordable internet for Filipinos, he should start cleansing the ranks of the NTC, from the top.