Is the Philippines ready for 5G?
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - April 5, 2019 - 12:00am

Is the Philippines ready for 5G, or the fifth generation mobile communications? We asked this question directly from Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) “acting” Secretary Eliseo Rio Jr. who gave us a resounding “yes” answer in our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday. The answer though goes with a “but.”

While indeed our country is ready for it, Rio cited, our telecommunication companies (telcos) must have the transmission towers that would serve new mobile handsets to fully tap the speed and efficiency of 5G. He admitted the Philippines is practically still at 2G and 3G that are good only for the short message service (SMS for texting), for voice calls that are often interrupted by no-signal and a small volume of data transmission and limited 4G video streaming.

5G is said to offer speeds 100 times faster than 4G, primarily used for smartphones and other similar devices. 5G is also expected to support new applications like remote medical transcription.

According to Rio, the DICT is banking on its common towers program to prepare the country’s embracing the 5G now that our country will soon have a third telco in full operation early next year. He refers to the consortium of Mislatel of Davao-based businessman Dennis Uy with China Telecom that will compete with the two telco giants, the Ayala-owned Globe Telecom and the Smart Communications Inc. of the Philippine Long Distance and Telephone (PLDT) Co. of business leader Manny V. Pangilinan.

Aside from the adoption of 5G, Rio announced customers of both Globe and Smart will no longer be charged with interconnection fee for calls and text messages between the telco subscribers starting July this year.

This is because, Rio explained, the DICT shall have approved and issued already by that time the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of Republic Act (RA) No. 11202, or the Mobile Number Portability Act. The National Telecommunications Commission, which is one of the attached regulatory agencies of the DICT, is in charge of formulating the IRR.

In July last year, the NTC was only able to bring down interconnection fee from P2.50 per minute to P.50 per minute for voice calls, and P.15 to P.05 per SMS.

But RA 11202 signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte last February, Rio explained, mandated the removal of the interconnection fees for domestic calls and text messages of subscribers from different telco providers. The same law allows consumers to keep their mobile number even if they switch service providers or change their subscription from postpaid to prepaid and vice versa – free of charge.

These pieces of good news were shared to us by the DICT chief last Wednesday during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle in Malate. Rio discussed the latest developments in our country’s catch up bid to further improve and modernize our ICT services.

Rio though expressed confidence the additional capacity from Mislatel as third telco would come into stream and operational hopefully by the last quarter of this year. This after the franchise and several other questions raised against the DICT award of the third telco to Mislatel were all ironed out during the congressional public hearings.

Sadly, Rio admitted, the Philippines has already been left behind by its neighbors like Vietnam which has built over 70,000 telco towers. The current situation of telco services can be best described by the sheer low number of cell sites with only 17,000 telco towers spread around the country serving millions of customers. According to him, the Philippines generates as much as 1.4 billion SMS a day, making us the “texting capital” of the world.

But this is precisely because, Rio explained, voice calls are much used in the United States as well as in Europe because of faster, available and uninterrupted signals.  

This obviously very low number of towers is largely causing the poor internet speed, lack of wi-fi and connectivity, but are more expensive in our country.

Based on World Bank database, the Philippines and Vietnam are of the same economic status as of 2017 growth figures in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). On GDP per capita (in US dollar basis to make them comparable at constant value), the Philippines had $2,891 while Vietnam had $1,835. But if you look at how Vietnam’s GDP per capita grew, it was almost four-fold from $432 in 1990 as against the $1,526 of the Philippines for the same year.

Considered as Johnny-come-lately in having mobile telecom services in this part of the world, Vietnam is already set to test 5G services this year. Huawei Technologies of China is among the first foreign companies deep into partnership ventures for supply of the 5G chips and equipment with the three state-run Vietnamese telcos. One of them is Viettel which became the first firm in Vietnam to receive permission to trial 5G services last month. Huawei has been the largest provider of 2G and 3G network equipment in Vietnam.

But the situation here in our country, Rio pointed out, has much improved since President Duterte took over the government in 2016. In line with President Duterte’s campaign promises, he cited, the Philippine government has cleared the path that paved the way for the entry of not just a third telco but 19 foreign and local companies that would build the common towers. 

In fact, he disclosed, there would be a meeting today at the DICT office in Diliman, Quezon City with the respective representatives of Globe Telecom, Smart and Mislatel and the 19 common tower companies to initially build at least 1,000 new common towers this year. “In a sense, it is a proof of concept in the initial rollout of common towers as we have never done this in the Philippines,” Rio cited.

The common tower providers committed to put in investments of as much as P4.5 billion to put up the towers, as well as operate and maintain them. Each tower, Rio said, costs at least P5 million each.

Given the current telco infrastructure in our country, we have to be bear and grin with the 3G for now.

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