Hello, Bethlehem?
COMMONSENSE - Marichu Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - August 14, 2020 - 12:00am

It is easier said than done when President Rodrigo Duterte first articulated this in his penultimate state of the nation address (SONA). In his SONA last July 27 at the joint opening sessions of the 18th Congress, President Duterte warned telecommunications companies (telcos) to improve their services by December this year. The President justified this deadline with a wisecrack that he wishes his connection to get through Bethlehem by that time.

Is this presidential deadline even feasible, if not unrealistic? This we asked Department of Information and Communications (DICT) undersecretary Ramon “RJ” Jacinto, Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) director-general Jeremiah Belgica, and Ramon Isberto, head of the public affairs department of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone (PLDT)-Smart in our Zoom Webinar of our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday.

Jacinto conceded the supposed deadline was merely President Duterte’s “exasperation” over the continuing poor connectivity services of the existing duopoly of giant telcos, Smart Communications Inc. run by businessman Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP) and the Ayala-owned Globe Telecom Inc. A third telco called Dito Telecommunity Corp., or Dito for short, is owned by Davao City businessman Dennis Uy in partnership with China Telecom.

The third telco is supposed to break the duopoly. Dito is originally set to have a technical launch/audit last month. Government regulators led by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) will conduct the audit to test if Dito complied with their first year commitments. However, this was moved to January next year following the outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, pandemic. Dito earlier announced it is planning to do actual commercial launch of its network where customers can actually use them by March next year, if not earlier.

First appointed by President Duterte as presidential adviser on economy and information technology, Jacinto was moved over to become DICT undersecretary last May this year but actually assumed office on June 7 only during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the necessities of contact-less transactions, no face-to-face classes, and physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection, Jacinto underscored the importance of the President’s directives to improve connectivity services of the telcos.

“Everybody needs to be connected, especially with the pandemic. So everybody has a right to be connected with the rest of the world,” Jacinto pointed out.

“Connectivity has thus become a human rights issue,” Jacinto declared.

Jacinto renewed his pitch to implement the “common towers” initiative which he started while he was still presidential adviser. Since he is with the DICT already, Jacinto is now directly involved to carry out the goal of the “common towers” to put up at least 50,000 new towers nationwide over the next couple of years.

This is to augment the 18,000 cell sites on record as existing all over the Philippines. In reality, Jacinto clarified, there are only 10,000 towers because of duplication. So there are 40,000 towers that still need to be put up, he stressed.

The DICT last month issued the much-anticipated guidelines for the “common towers” policy. Under the policy, the DICT encourages the growth and development of independent tower companies (ITCs) as a pioneering sector for the birth and development of a robust ITC environment of shared passive telco tower infrastructure. This is in line with the overall objective of enhancing wireless network coverage and quality of ICT services across the entire country. It seeks to widen the base of tower providers to fast-track the deployment of common towers across all regions of the country, especially in the un-served and under-served areas.

Speaking for PLDT/Smart, Isberto pointed out the challenges of the telco industry in the country is not only limited to putting up towers but a whole “ecosystem” that includes connecting these infrastructure with cable fiber optics to further improve connectivity. Thus, Isberto admitted it requires heavy capital expenses (capex) and additional investments to better enhance not only the voice calls but also data transmissions through the wifi, internet, online, digital. In fact, Isberto pointed out, a large chunk of earnings of PLDT/Smart are being invested back to further improve their services to its millions of customers relying on their voice and data transmissions.

Jacinto confirmed this, citing his official conversations recently with MVP about ongoing projects of PLDT/Smart to modernize and push advances in ICT. With the advent of 5G to improve the speed of internet in the Philippines, Jacinto encouraged telcos to link up with fiber optics of Facebook to reduce costs and pass on the benefit of consumers in terms of cheaper but reliable services.

In the same virtual Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum, Belgica disclosed he has issued “compliance orders” to nine local government units (LGU) to release permits allowing to build cell sites for applications which have exceeded the seven-day processing period and have complete requirements in line with the latest presidential directives. Belgica invoked the powers of agency, specifically under Section 15 of Republic Act (RA) 11032, or the Ease of Doing Business and Efficient Government Service Delivery Act.

ARTA’s “compliance order” followed after the signing of Joint Memorandum Circular (JMC- 01-2020) – with the DICT as lead agency started the streamlining of the permit process for telco towers. Once this takes effect on Aug.20, the processing time for permits for telco towers must be reduced to 16 days from 241 days, as well as cuts the number of documentary requirements to 35 from 86.

Belgica, a lawyer by profession, cited the same law also created the ARTA. During a meeting held last week, ARTA required telco firms Smart and Globe to submit their lists of all pending applications to LGUs. Smart submitted their list while Globe Telecom has not done so yet.

So can President Duterte make his “Hello, Bethlehem” call by December?

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