"Second to achieving herd immunity, we must stop the further deterioration of our economy."
At the rate that our population is being vaccinated against COVID 19 and the growing number of even more virulent mutations spreading around the planet, going back to pre-pandemic normality might still be more than a year away. Or, we must all accept the reality that we must now learn to thrive and co-exist with this virus the way our species has survived so many diseases, most of which are still a threat.
Second to achieving herd immunity, we must stop the further deterioration of our economy. Safely rebooting the economy can no longer be delayed. We can stop this cycle of on and off lockdowns not just by strictly following safety protocols, but by harnessing the full potential of digital technologies which virtually overnight, has become an indispensable tool in this pandemic environment.
It seems that again we are in a catch-up situation where the slow development of our digital infrastructure will be an impeding factor to the pace of recovery. Reports from the telecommunications industry show an exponential surge in demand for mobile data services putting more pressure to expand and upgrade their wireless and fiber optic networks. The telcos have been aggressively investing in expanding the reach of their fiber optic and mobile networks which has resulted in improving speeds as reported by global monitoring firm Ookla. Policy moves to streamline the decades old permitting problem of cell site and fiber network construction by The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) have greatly improved the pace but building the estimated 50,000 tower backlog and the last mile connections will need a well aligned investment strategy from government and the private telcos.
It’s the private telcos that have been driving investments in telecommunications infrastructure which Fitch ratings projects to further accelerate capital expenditures by up to 25 percent in the next years and rated the Philippines as having one of the highest capex/revenue ratio in the Asia-Pacific Region.
Last year, the DICT actually proposed a budget of P18 billion to implement the National Broadband Plan but was instead given only P1.5 billion. This is a pittance compared to how governments of other ASEAN countries are investing in strategic telecommunications infrastructure such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam with budgets of US$233 million, US$343 million, and US$820 million, respectively. No wonder we’re always lagging behind.
Committing financial resources is one thing but like the construction delays in telco tower builds that had to be addressed by new policy, a conducive regulatory environment is needed to take away archaic bureaucratic hurdles that were crafted during the pre-internet era.
As the convenor of Telecom Tower Watch, a monitoring and consultation initiative of the DICT in partnership with consumer group CitizenWatch Philippines, we recently released a public statement calling for the need to update and harmonize these obsolete laws and regulations into an integrated policy regime that would establish a more responsive and supportive of the fast pace of digital technology innovations.
In particular, as also pointed out by telcos, there will be conflicting provisions in Republic Act 3846 that regulates radio communications and the pending Open Access in Data Transmission bill (HB 8901).
A recently published statement of Globe Senior Legal Counsel Ariel Tubayan warned that if the Open Access bill is passed, telcos will be forced to comply with two separate and conflicting laws that require a Congressional franchise for both voice and data services. He is correct. In today’s technology, these services are already converged and delivered digitally using the same telecommunications infrastructure. This will become yet another unnecessary bureaucratic burden that will go against the HB 8901’s important objective which is to liberalize, lower cost, and accelerate roll-out urgently needed broadband infrastructure.
Another situation that needs urgent action are the idle radio frequency franchises being treated like real estate lots waiting to be sold to the highest bidder. Another old policy flaw that allowed such practice. This should also be changed with a legal mechanism for government to confiscate these strategic assets and ensure that these radio frequencies are readily available to be fairly utilized to augment telecommunications services.
The DICT has a National Broadband Plan that needs government funding. A low-hanging fruit that must be prioritized is the lighting up of the existing fiber network already existing in the nationwide power transmission network of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines. It’s frustrating that this project has been delayed for years because of lack of funding. Also critical is the connecting networks needed to bring these high speed broadband signals to the consumers.
To quote the Telco Tower Watch statement, “There is an urgent need for a new regulatory regime that will boost the development of a nationwide digital infrastructure to meet surging demand for fast and reliable connectivity in an emerging digital ecosystem.”