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IN the same way that the services of domestic airlines are getting worse, those of the telcos are not getting any better, despite the presence of a Department of Information and Communications Technology. DICT was formed by Republic Act 10844, signed into law exactly one year ago today.
Here is a snapshot of the Philippines key statistical indicators from We Are Social. Despite dragging connectivity, of the 101.5 million total population, mobile connections are king compared to Internet users. Some Filipinos even have more than one mobile connection owing to connectivity issues between Globe and Smart, depending on areas already plugged in the grid and the last mile, which is usually rural Philippines. Despite all the inefficiencies of the telcos, “50 million Facebook users/accounts are in the Philippines. There are 42 percent daily active users of FB in the Philippines. Social media penetration in the Philippines is at 58 percent of the total population. And Filipinos spend the highest time on social media on an average of 4.17 per day.”
The 2015 Global Net Index of Internet metrics software-maker Ookla “ranked the Philippines 176th out of 202 countries in terms of broadband speed, averaging just 3.64 megabytes per second (mbps), a sixth of the 23.3 mbps global average. Internet service in the Philippines is also one of the most expensive in the world, averaging $18 (P840)/mbps compared to the global average of $5 (P230)/mbps.” These is where reform and change should be.
Once one is connected, consistency of connection is the next issue. Drop calls are still prevalent. Delayed text messages (which sometimes arrive after a full day or two) are the norm. And missing loads are still high. Being post-paid does not mean you get better service. In fact, post-paid users appear to suffer more than pre-paid as it is easy for telcos to earn in volume via pre-paid. OFWs complain about roaming services gone haywire. They acquire the service via SIMs sold at the airports, and then after as just a click, the load is gone.
DICT recently sponsored the first-ever Philippine Telecommunications Summit where it was stressed that the conference would address three main concerns: cost, coverage and speed of telecommunication services. The summit also discussed how these concerns can be fixed with the cooperation of all stakeholders. After the summit, not much has been heard of the DICT roadmaps, plans, quick solutions and no immediate improvement has been felt in the services that Globe and Smart have promised. In fact, the 4G via LTE remains a promise despite the so-called roll-out.
Worse, DICT has a different view of the 700 Mhz frequency reallocation which the Competition Commission wanted bid out by auction. And the recent renewal by Congress of Smart’s franchise showed to one and all that improved service was merely due to additional towers halted by enterprising LGUs. The issue of the real ownership of Smart is just for another time and congressional hearing. In fact, Smart even secured a gag order from the court against the Competition Commission. So, when can the real owners of spectrum get their due share?
Both telcos cut off services if there is a delay in payment. The same is true of the PLDT bundled internet. They put an irritating pop-up reminder if you have not paid your landline service, yet customers do not get any reprieve from bad and crawl internet service. A lot worse if your Internet just fails. You can be out of the grid until their lineman decides to show up and only then can service be restored, but you do not get your money back. When it rains, expect it to be a crawl service or worse a total stop. There is also a rush hour thing with Internet connection. You feel the service dragging once everyone hooks up.
Both telcos point to their inability to put more cell sites because of corruption in some LGUs. Somewhere along the way, the telcos stopped building and in the same period, LGUs decided to flex their muscles. Our country compares unfavorably with Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan in terms of population or number of users versus number of cell sites and average number of users per cell sites. “The Philippines has the fewest number of cell sites at 21,000 for 47 million, or half the population of the Philippines. There are 2,244 Filipinos per cell site, or 3 times compared to the other 3 nations in the study. Local governments require an average of 25 permits and it takes 8 months to build one cell site.”
The idea of a national broadband network has been revived, and three options suggested. First is putting up a “purely physical infrastructure” in the countryside, where the services of a telco will be needed. Second is to build a “working physical infrastructure,” also in the countryside, partly run by the DICT, “but because this maybe hybrid, the services of the telcos, even their physical components maybe part of that broadband.” Third is for government to become a third-party operator. DICT Secretary Salalima, a former Globe executive, recommended the second option. The cost could come to anywhere from P77 billion to P199 billion. The capital costs could go down if the DICT were allowed to utilize the existing “passive” infrastructure of the government. The Energy Regulatory Commission said making use of the NGCP network as an Internet backbone will be no cost to the government because the transmission lines are still state-owned.
As owners of spectrum, a patrimonial resource, Filipinos are again at the losing end of too much greed and regulatory capture. Will PRRD finally use his powers to rein in greed and give decent service to spectrum owners and not to spectrum lords?