Adding weight to a threat by President Rodrigo Duterte during his State of the Nation Address (SONA), Senate President Vicente Sotto III said Tuesday it is "possible" for the government to take over telecommunication firms that fail to deliver quality service to the public.
"That is possible. The government can remove those franchises anytime with another law," Sotto said in a TV interview with ANC.
Duterte, in his fifth SONA on Monday, urged the existing duopoly of PLDT and Globe Telecom to improve their services or face "closure" or "expropriation."
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Malacañang on Tuesday said executives of the country’s two major telecommunication companies can meet with the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) if they want to discuss in detail the plans to improve their services.
“The NTC is there for them to talk to,” Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in Filipino during a virtual Palace briefing.
Roque also said that the Palace welcomed an offer from media giant ABS-CBN Corp.—which was denied a congressional broadcast franchise by Congress this month—to use its transmission network and educational programs for distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
He noted that ABS-CBN made the offer after Duterte, also in the SONA, said that television frequencies reverted to the government will be used for educational purposes as the country's schools shift to e-learning.
Sotto said the government ran a telephone service in the 1960s, adding that local telcos "should seriously take up what the President said."
Duterte's remarks only concern Smart and Globe and are not intended for foreign investors, the senator added.
"To each his own. We’ll just have to accept the fact that that is the style of the President. The formal speeches are not his strength. He got extemporaneous," Sotto said.
Asked if Duterte was open to meeting with executives himself, Roque said telcos should provide better service to their customers regardless if a meeting is possible.
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He said the NTC will be in charge of declaring whether telco services have improved by December.
“There are many bases to know that they have improved their services and the NTC knows them, there’s the issue on dropped calls, on whether people can clearly hear each other, they have a way of measuring it,” Roque said.
The spokesman said he too experienced issues with his mobile service.
“Those with certificate of public convenience should give convenience to the public and not difficulty,” he added.
Meanwhile, he denied that Duterte was prioritizing better mobile and internet services over the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic.
“He didn’t say telcos will be his only priority. Everything that will benefit the people will be his priority. One of them is better telco service,” he said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a supporter of the President, said this kind of threat had worked before. In the past, he said, a threat from the President led to a P40 billion tax settlement by Mighty Corp., the settlement of a P6 billion obligation by Philippine Airlines and the government takeover of the Mile Long property.
Lacson also pointed to the rehabilitation of Boracay Island.
None of these cases went through long and expensive court hearings, he said.
"Whether government takeover of telcos is justified and compliant with the provisions of the constitution given the circumstances is another matter altogether," he added.
Having said that, Lacson said telcos should treat it as a wake up call to improve their services to the public as one thing in the President’s statement on the issue is certain and true -- that the country’s telecommunications services pale in comparison with other jurisdictions in terms of speed and efficiency.
He noted that what the President failed to issue is a similar warning to some local government executives who extort money from the telcos in exchange for permits and licenses as well as protection from delays in the construction of such facilities especially in areas where communist rebels hold sway.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said threatening telcos with expropriation after shutting down the largest media network while displaying sheer government incompetence and failure in managing the COVID response will only scare foreign and local investors from doing business in the Philippines and further hamper the country’s economic recovery.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said government expropriation is not the solution to poor service.
He said the government has a terrible record in operating telecoms. "Promoting competition is the way forward,” he said.
Senator Grace Poe said the frustration is growing by the day for fast, affordable and reliable internet service, which has become a necessity as people rely more on digital technologies amid the pandemic.
“We know that improving internet service and coverage will happen not only by obligating the telcos but government regulators as well to remove the roadblocks to building the necessary communication infrastructure," he said.
She said the pertinent national agencies and local government units should step up so that the approval of at least 25 regulatory permits for the construction of cell towers will not take six months.
The Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) formed a special task force to monitor and strictly enforce the compliance of agencies, particularly of local government units, tasked to drastically streamline the permitting process for construction of additional telecommunication towers.
ARTA Director General Jeremiah Belgica said the agency and Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) have been steadily coordinating and steering the different agencies together to come up with a streamlined framework for securing permits for the construction of cell towers.
“We need at least 50,000 additional towers for the country in order to be competitive with our Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbors,” Belgica said in a statement on Tuesday. With PNA