Telecom tower rules add to bureaucracy

Opening up the construction of common cellular towers to everybody is promoting fair competition. Limiting the number to just two, however, will result in inefficiency and is prone to corruption.

What was originally meant to benefit the general public may end up favoring only a select few after all. Government regulators recently held a public hearing on a draft memorandum circular of the Department of Information and Communications Technology and the National Telecommunications Commission on common cell towers. The outcome of the hearing immediately drew sharp criticisms from industry stakeholders.

Much of the disagreement centered on Presidential Adviser Ramon Jacinto’s insistence on allowing only a maximum of two independent tower companies to build common cell towers. The private tower companies opposed the proposed policy, saying there should be as many towers as possible, and not just two.

Advocacy group Better Broadband Alliance lead convenor Grace Mirandilla-Santos questioned Jacinto and the DICT on the government’s rationale for limiting the participating tower companies. 

“The tower companies are finding it viable to have more, why are they limiting it to two?” Mirandilla-Santos asked, and sought the legal basis for inviting just two independent tower companies.

Many in the industry raised concern that the proposal could turn into a money-making scheme for some businessmen. 

A more open accreditation process ensures a more level playing field and market competition, says one stakeholder, but limiting the process to only two companies breeds favoritism and corruption.

Jacinto as early as January this year seemed to have played favorites when he cited American Tower Corp. as a viable option. His business interests and involvement in highly-coveted broadcasting frequencies, radio stations and towers, being an owner of Rajah Broadcasting Network Inc., now deserve scrutiny. 

Jacinto operates 10 radio stations whose towers, along with those of other prospective broadcast companies, could kick off the telco tower companies’ goal of 20,000 plus towers. There’s no stopping Jacinto under the draft circular to infuse equity in the two accredited tower companies.

DICT Acting Secretary Eliseo Rio Jr., of course, will have the last say on the issue. Rio says he is responsible for the decision, and that he and not Jacinto will sign the policy. 

Globe Telecom Inc. head of corporate and legal services group Froilan Castelo, during the public consultations, also opposed the proposal of the DICT and NTC to prohibit them from building their own towers in the future. 

“We do not see how an independent tower company can alleviate or ease out the problems that we are fixing. They are private companies, the same as us and they are going to face the same problems. We do not see any reason how this will help us. If we are going to make this exclusive, we do not know and we do not see how this will speed up the rollout,” Castelo said. 

“Preventing us from doing that is a violation of our contract and with the constitution. What we right now need is the easing out of bureaucracy in the government,” he added.

Globe Telecom is not mincing its words in posing a strong objection to the draft circular. “The proposed rule of limiting the entire tower sub-industry again only to two independent, private tower companies is anti-competitive, retrogressive, and against global best practice,” Castelo said

The Philippines currently has just 16,500 cell sites and needs an additional 50,000 towers at least to properly serve 113 million subscribers today.

Castelo doubts if two tower companies can help overcome the bureaucracy in building cell sites. 

“Right now, it takes an average of 25 permits and adding up the time to acquire right-of-way, it will take an average of 8 months to build a single cell site. These supposed two private independent towercos will not be better than us because they will be subjected to the same difficulties we are currently facing,” he said. “The main objective should be to build more and augment the efforts of the telcos to densify the country with cell sites.”

The lack of cellular towers is the greatest barrier to seamless mobile internet connectivity in the Philippines, with no viable short-term solution in sight due to permitting issues.

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Topics: Telecommunication towers , Ramon Jacinto , Grace Mirandilla-Santos , Eliseo Rio Jr , Froilan Castelo , Department of Information and Communications Technology , National Telecommunications Commission
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