"There is urgency to close the 50,000-cell site tower gap."
It looks like the aggressive investments of the private telecommunications companies are gaining momentum as significant increases in fixed and broadband and mobile data speeds have been recorded in the January 2021 report of WeAreSocial – Hootsuite. As much as 34-percent year-on year improvement in mobile internet connections and a 23.1-percent gain in average speed of fixed internet connections were seen despite the mobility disruptions of the lockdowns.
However, data from Yugatech shows that we still have low site density relative to the population of users. With the surging demand for broadband services there is urgency to close this 50,000-cell site tower gap.
This has prompted the launch of Telecom Tower Watch, a new initiative of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) in partnership with our consumer advocacy group CitizenWatch Philippines.
As convenor of CitizenWatch I had the honor of launching this advocacy during the online virtual round table discussion hosted by the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute (ADRi) held last Thursday.
Telecom Tower Watch is a monitoring and consultation initiative that aims to support the accelerated building of digital infrastructure projects. This joint intervention will have an online awareness campaign that will provide transparency on the ongoing telecommunications infrastructure projects and will host a series of consultative meetings that would gather government, private sector, and other stakeholders to tackle issues, find solutions, and align strategies towards the fast expansion and upgrading of the country’s digital infrastructure.
During his opening remarks, Stratbase ADRi President Prof. Dindo Manhit emphasized that digitization is vital to economic continuity and has enabled us to safely live and work in pandemic conditions.”
He rightly points out that “The Philippine government should invest in building digital infrastructure to cope with increasing demand for connectivity.”
“Building a robust broadband backbone is a long-term infrastructure asset that will boost the country’s competitiveness in an emerging digital economy and indispensable, not just to survive this crisis, but to rebound and push for an acceptable pace of recovery,” Manhit said.
DICT Undersecretary for Digital Philippines Emmanuel Rey R. Caintic, in his keynote speech, said: “The ideal communications ecosystem is what we want to achieve in the country, where thousands of telecommunications towers erected throughout the archipelago connected to the fiber backbone through fiber backhaul preferably.”
The DICT together with other national government agencies issued the Joint Memorandum Circular on Tower Permitting, streamlining the process of issuing necessary permits and reduce the documentary requirements needed to construct towers in the country.
However, eight months after its implementation, the telcos are still suffering delays from several local governments and private homeowner associations.
Globe Telecom Vice-President for Site Acquisition and Management, Vince Tempongko reported that they were able to get 1,900 permits from July to November 2020 which is almost six times compared to the previous year.
Mr. Tempongko said that, “Telcos have already been spending close to half its revenues. There is very little room for us to increase our investments. We will need help of the government to fast-track even further our requirements.”
“There are certain areas in Manila that we cannot reach because of oppositions in the neighborhood to villages. These continue to be hotspots for us as far as coverage and capacity are concerned. It’s really a partnership across the telcos, the private sector, the government and the civil society to bridge us to where we want to be as far as digital transformation is concerned,” Tempongko said.
Smart Communications Vice-President for Regulatory Affairs, Atty. Roy Ibay, likewise pointed out several problem areas being confronted by telcos reporting that the 16-day timeline required by the joint memorandum circular, in reality, is still averaging from 30 to 60 days.
Atty. Ibay revealed that some local government “are still imposing unjust, excessive, oppressive, and confiscatory regulatory fees. When you protest, they basically use that non-payment of this regulatory fees to withhold issuance of building another local permits.”
Other bureaucratic barriers they are encountering are: “Special Use Permits” to secure building permits, unreasonable fees; insistence of some barangays to apply for a resolution requiring public hearing instead of a barangay clearance; requiring to secure Homeowner Association’s (HOA) consent; HOA’s opposing the construction of telecom towers within their subdivisions despite the fact that there are no other suitable sites; HOAs collecting excessive fees such as business clearance fee, profit sharing agreements some of which are recurring.
More issues were disclosed that showed inconsistencies with existing national laws and policies and what’s actually happening on the ground. This is just a glimpse of what will be exposed by Telecom Tower Watch.
To all parties who are delaying the development of our digital infrastructure projects, you are adding to the burden of this crisis. We need the cooperation of everyone.