Making things happen: PRRD’s big promise

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - July 2, 2020 - 12:00am

By now, Dito Telecommunity must be in frenzy to make true its committed technical launch this month, which would mean delivering a minimum average speed of 27 megabits per second to 37 percent of the country’s total population.

As a rough yardstick, 27 Mbps is more than two times faster than the current average download speed of 12.09 Mbps in mobile services delivered by the duopoly of Globe Telecom and Smart Communications as reported in the latest global measurements.

Before the quarantines imposed on Metro Manila and Luzon caused by the community spread of coronavirus in the country, Dito had expressed confidence in meeting its deadlines come July, plus that of rolling out commercial services to the public by March 2021.

The lockdowns, however, affected its movement during critical months, which prompted company officials to talk about invoking a force majeure as a reason for possible delays when most construction work for towers and data centers had been scaled down.

Psychological effect

Dito now has less than a month to double up on missed work; crucial will be how its contractor partners muster resources in a catch-up mode. Dito’s terms of operation with the government carries penalty clauses on delays, but the psychological effect of not being able to deliver on a big promise by no less than the President would be more hurting.

The public, after all, has been primed up since Day One when the President was elected into office to expect internet speeds as fast as those offered in most countries in the world. The fact that Dito partnered with China Telecommunications somehow felt that things were possible.

Dito has been the “blessed” third telco that portends to break the duopoly of Globe and Smart/PLDT, with PLDT handling the fixed telecommunication network. Through the perceived full support of the President, Dito has been receiving countless “blessings” to “make it happen.”

Duterte has been known to be instrumental in bringing China Telecoms (through its warming relationships with Chinese President Xi Jinping) to the table. Dito is the telecom giant’s first overseas investment partnership, not only in terms of facilitating loans for the estimated $6-billion, five-year contract, but also in providing its superior soft and hard infrastructure knowledge.

New rules

To make things happen, new rules have thus been made, the most noteworthy being the new tower sharing policy that would allow Dito to tap into the 18,000-strong tower network of Globe and Smart/PLDT combined.

The Department of Information and Communications Technology is now hard at work with the Anti-Red Tape Authority to cut the number of permits needed by telcos and independent companies to build towers by as much as 52 percent.

Even then, Dito is forging ahead with building its own towers, a commitment under its contract with the government, even as its expected shipments of equipment to build the committed 1,600 towers have been delayed.

Dito had likewise signed an agreement with the League of Municipalities of the Philippines to provide a dedicated nationwide fiber network that will directly connect municipalities in the country. The telco is also asking the government to allow towers to be built within military facilities.

Changing rules

Not only are new rules being made, old rules are in the process of being changed. The Lower House recently passed a bill that will reclassify telecommunication companies as non-public utilities, an attempt to open up the industry participants to majority or full foreign ownership.

The move is highly controversial, not just because of the constitutional impediments that need to be changed for it to be deemed worthy of passage by Congress and signed into law by the President, but also of concerns about China’s encroachment into national data security – and other areas.

Growing fears of China’s rising dominance in global geopolitics is fueled by territorial aggression, not only in seas (including the West Philippine Sea) but also along its borders. In the Philippines, the State Grid Corp. of China is a partner of the company that operates our national power grid.

China has also been mired in the debt swap agreements under its Belt and Road Initiative that have impinged on the sovereignty of countries forced to cede control of their ports and other vital infrastructure projects after failing to repay loans.

The thirst of China to take full control of its overseas businesses is not unheard of, and the Philippines’ growing exposure to Chinese loans makes for unsettling vulnerability. That the world is going through a depression because of the coronavirus has increased this anxiety.

Big stakes

But it seems that the show must go on, at least for the Duterte administration, to pave the way for that promised paradise of an 84 percent nationwide internet coverage with minimum average speeds of at least 55 Mbps by 2024. Dito, with lots of Chinese help, seems to be the only way to go.

Skepticism, displayed by many industry stakeholders, is nothing for a government that is hell-bent on bringing the country to a golden age of information technology where even teachers in the mountains in the North and South will be comfortably assured of continuing online classes for millions of Filipino students.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is aiding this hard push for nationwide connectivity. We want to see our children resume their learning through a wired world. We want our micro, small and medium-sized enterprises reaping growth through digital tools. We want our agricultural workers able access weather patterns and trading updates through free internet.

The stakes are high, and it looks like we’ll compromise on many things to make things happen.

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