Solons: Gov't must invest in 'missionary cell sites' for efficient rural internet connectivity

Rizal Rep. Fidel Nograles and Ang Probinsiyano party-list Rep. Ronnie Ong on Sunday appealed to the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to fast-track the installation of cell sites in far-flung places, which until now don’t have internet connectivity.

The petition was made in the light of the new system of online learning and work from home arrangement amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Ong, aside from the ‘Build Build Build’ program of the government, which centers on the construction of roads and bridges, it is also imperative to invest and prioritize communication infrastructure.

“We really need good internet signals, especially during the time when the new normal is really using technology to work and also learn from home. Government needs to invest in technology infrastructure, and not just roads and bridges. Kailangan i-bundle na talaga ito,” said Ong.

For his part, Nograles, vice-chair of the House education committee, pointed out that the government can fund the construction of cellular towers, which could be leased to telecom companies. In this manner, the building of cell sites can be accelerated for the benefit of the public.

The Philippines is among the Asian countries with the lowest cell site density.

According to data by TowerXchange, an informal network among advisors in the market tower industry worldwide, the use-per-cell-site density of the Philippines is 4,036, based on 18,000 total cell sites for 67 million internet users.

The figures are far from countries such as India, which only has 312 user-per-site density due to 1.5 million cell sites, Indonesia with 91,700 cell sites for its 132 million internet users or a use-per-density of 1,466, and China, which has 1.95 million cell sites for 751 million internet users or 384 user-per-site density

Even Vietnam boasts of 70,000 cell sites for 64 million internet users or a 914 user-per-site density.

In Cotabato City, Mindanao, a total of 246,700 Globe active customers have to share among them just a total of 13 cell sites, resulting in poor signal connectivity, while other remote places have no internet connection yet, industry figures show.

Local telecom companies, however, admit that a major obstacle in building cellular towers involves the 25 different permits required by the government, which usually take about eight months or more before completion.

That’s apart from other pertaining requirements set by other local government units (LGUs), exclusive subdivisions, and Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB).

Meanwhile, the DICT concedes that too many requirements slow down the construction of cell sites, forcing them to consider lessening by 50 percent the “redundant or duplicitous permitting” in the building of telco towers.

DICT Assistant Secretary Emmanuel Caintic said the department is now coordinating with the Anti-Red Tape Authority and other government agencies to streamline the permitting requirements and procedures.

Easing the requirements will likewise bolster the common tower program of the DICT. Under the program, independent tower companies will be allowed to construct their own sites, which can be leased to telco operators like PLDT Inc. and Globe Telecom.

Telco companies were the only ones permitted to construct cell sites when DICT had no common tower program, resulting in the neglect of remote areas, as cell sites were mostly centered on urban areas and in places where there is high user demand.

About 50,000 towers are needed to strengthen the mobile connectivity in the entire country, industry officials said.

Telco companies initially estimate it will take 10 years before the target is reached, but once DICT allows independent players to build cell towers, it will only take three to five years to improve the internet connection in the Philippines, particularly in places within the Visayas and Mindanao regions.

Guidelines for the common tower policy will be released by the DICT next month.

At the moment, US-based company American Tower Corp., a global operator, has expressed intention to invest in the construction of cellular towers in the country, although the DICT made it clear the program is open to other tower operators.

The DICT sees an improved and lower-cost internet connection in the country once additional cell sites are built in the country.

Topics: Department of Information and Communications Technology , Fidel Nograles , ‘Build Build Build’ , Anti-Red Tape Authority , Emmanuel Caintic
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