Billionaire and Alibaba founder Jack Ma told the inconvenient truth about the state of the Philippine internet when he visited the country late October, and he was dead right about it. But TransCo president Melvin Matibag’s offer to improve internet speed using the power grid was ill-advised.
“I arrived late last night and I tried to test the speed of Philippine [Internet]. It’s no good,” the Alibaba founder said in an audience that included Ernest Cu, chief executive officer of Globe Telecom Inc., and PLDT Inc.’s chief revenue officer Eric Alberto.
The Philippines has the slowest internet speed in the Asia-Pacific region with an average of 5.5 megabits per second (mbps), according to content delivery provider Akamai’s Global State of the Internet report in May. The global average internet connection speed, meanwhile, is 7.2 mbps.
Gen. Eliseo Rio, the current officer-in-charge of the Department of Information and Communications Technology, did not wait long to forward his own views on improving internet speed in the country. He conceded that one of the main problems was the lack of cell sites to handle the country’s volume of data traffic.
Echoing the statements of major telecommunication companies, Rio said the 25 or so permits needed to build one cell site tower had kept the total number of cell sites in the country at around 20,000 compared with the requirement of at least 67,000. Vietnam, he added, had 70,000.
Aside from pushing for the signing of an executive order to reduce the permits required by local government units and national government agencies to build towers and limit the approval or disapproval to seven calendar days, Rio and the DICT are also planning to increase Wifi access points in public places to provide people with free services and help decongest existing cell sites.
One other DICT plan that looks practical and cost-efficient on paper is to tap the existing power transmission lines of National Transmission Corp., or TransCo, and National Grid Corporation of the Philippines to help bring broadband connectivity to the rest of the country.
TransCo recently announced its intention to diversify into telecoms by making use of its power transmission assets. “We want to be a provider of telecom facilities. We will compete with the telcos,” said Matibag. “We want to diversify TansCo, amend the charter of TransCo by converting, not only as transmission company but also telecom company.”
The idea of broadband over power lines has been around for a while but has never seemed to get off the ground either in the Philippines or abroad. PLDT Inc. and sister company Manila Electric Co. in 2012 pursued a similar BPL project but ultimately decided against it due to unresolved interference problems.
“After several trials in Metro Manila, we found the broadband over power lines project unstable because of electrical usage interferences. That’s why it was terminated,” former PLDT president Napoleon Nazareno said.
American telecoms company AT&T has been trying to develop BPL for more than 10 years now but to no avail. It recently revived these plans with an announcement of its new Project AirGig—which has been described by the company as “deep in the experimentation stage.”
Studies have shown that aside from interference and signal degradation, BPL products are often delayed into the market due to technical issues. They also carry high prices and show a field performance that did not match laboratory results.
“You could get connected, but the connection wouldn’t always be good or stable,” said Julius Kunstler, principal analyst for telecommunications at Ovum. “Power lines were never made to handle communications. Think about it, you’re asking electric network to handle communications besides electricity.”
There are opportunities for this technology and specific uses for certain industries, but questions remain about whether quality internet delivery over BPL will materialize.
In the end, new ideas and efforts to provide Filipinos with better Internet are always welcome. It is easy, however, to claim to have the right solutions and answers to issues that are actually far more complicated than we think.