DO you know that telecommunications companies need to secure around 20 different permits from local government units (LGUs) just to put up cell sites and other telecoms facilities? Aside from the many permit requirements, mobile operators like Globe also have to deal with the different political actors in cities and municipalities, from barangay chiefs, building and licensing officials, all the way to the mayors, each of whom have a different motivation or agenda for granting—or not granting—the permit to build and operate cell sites.
The excessive permit requirements imposed by LGUs are not only oppressive but also absurd considering that, unlike traditional brick-and-mortar shops, cell sites are generally compact (i.e., they occupy a small area) and autonomous (i.e., works with little or no human intervention). This bureaucratic minefield has hampered efforts by Globe and other mobile operators to build much-needed cell sites around the country.
With four in every 10 Filipinos now using a smartphone, especially with the influx of low-priced local smartphone brands, the demand for mobile internet services has skyrocketed. According to We Are Social’s Digital Report, the country ranks one of the highest worldwide in the average “Time Spent on the Internet” via mobile devices at 3.3 hours per day. This is not surprising since the same report revealed that internet access in the Philippines has grown by 500 percent over the last four years—the fastest rate in Southeast Asia.
It’s a no-brainer that putting up more cell sites is crucial if cell-phone users are to enjoy faster mobile internet speeds. Since mobile data eats up more bandwidth than voice and text messages, telecoms operators need to build more cell sites to enable their networks to transmit enormous amount of data. For instance, Globe, the leading local network for smartphones, managed data traffic of 87,000 terabytes—a 270-percent increase over last year.
Ironically, the country’s mobile internet infrastructure has not been able to keep pace with the explosion in mobile data usage.
Based on a Feb. 2016 study made by TowerXchange—the open community for mobile network operators, investors and service providers in the telecoms industry—the country lags behind its Asian neighbors when it comes to cell-site density.
The number of unique physical cell sites in the Philippines is one of the lowest in Asia, with just 15,000 cell sites combined. China has the highest number, with 1.18 million cell sites, followed by India with 450,000, Indonesia with 76,477 cell sites, while Vietnam has 55,000, Thailand with 52,483, Pakistan with 28,000, Bangladesh with 27,000 and Malaysia with 22,000 cell sites.
The country’s 15,000 cell sites is only higher than in Cambodia and Australia, both with 9,000 towers, Myanmar with 7,620, and Sri Lanka with 7,000. By comparison, the United States has a total of 205,000 cell towers erected around the country.
Due to the limited number of cell sites, the increased demand for data is congesting our mobile networks. Despite various capability upgrades and network modernization using the latest technologies, the huge data traffic going through the country’s few cell sites cannot be offset even by a state-of-the-art network upgrades.
If we want faster mobile internet speeds, mobile operators need to build more cell sites, plain and simple. We’ve been told that Globe, for instance, has more than 500 cell sites waiting to be built at any given time. But given the considerable bureaucratic hurdles, it is understandable why telecommunications companies are quite reluctant to aggressively roll out the broadband infrastructure necessary to boost internet speeds in the country.
Our experience during the recently concluded national elections highlights the need for better mobile reception and faster internet speeds, particularly in rural and far-flung areas. Five days after the election, some 2,500 precincts have yet to transmit to Comelec the results for approximately 1.6 million votes. This not only delayed the official canvass but also cast doubt on the integrity of the vote count, especially in the hotly contested vice-presidential race between Bongbong Marcos and Leni Robredo.
If the automated electoral process is to remain credible, the electronic transmission of votes must be done quickly and accurately, whether the polling centers be in the countryside or on a distant island. But this can only happen if cell sites dot the entire archipelago.
We do hope the change promised by President-elect Rody Duterte comes—and comes soon—specifically, when it comes to the country’s internet speed. He can start by asking Congress to immediately pass an Open Access Law that would standardize and expedite the issuance of all the relevant permits for all telecoms facilities at the local government level. Such a law will effectively remove all bureaucratic and political roadblocks that prevent the quick deployment of telecoms infrastructure such as cell sites.
A speedier alternative is for President Rody to instantly cut down on red tape and streamline permit procedures at the LGU level simply by issuing an executive order within his first 100 days in office, just as he promised to do with the freedom of information (FOI) law. If he does, President Rody would have accomplished by the mere stroke of his pen what PNoy and his incompetent “daang matuwid” government failed to do over the past six years.