Industry shares wish list for administration’s last year

By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

PHILIPPINE telcos are hoping that the Duterte administration will be able to make the provision on telecommunications in the Republic Act No. 11494 or Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan II) permanent, as well as cut spectrum user fees and station licenses fees, before the end of the President’s term.

“The Bayanihan II has a sunset provision. It’s only good for three years. It will end in 2023. We hope that the President can make this provision on the infrastructure, particularly on the telecoms side, permanent,” Vicente Froilan M. Castelo, president of the Philippine Chamber of Telecommunication Operators, Inc. (PCTO), said in an online interview.

The Bayanihan II, which President Rodrigo R. Duterte signed on Sept. 11, 2020, granted the government the power to simplify the permit process for building cell towers.

“Before, we could barely make out 300 to 500 sites a year with 26 to 29 licenses and permits necessary for the construction of cell sites. Now, it’s down to two,” Mr. Castelo noted.

Globe said it was able to secure 1,180 permits as of end-May, while PLDT, Inc. and its wireless arm Smart Communications, Inc. secured around 22,000 fixed and wireless permits since the government fast-tracked approvals for telco firms last year.

“We are also asking the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) and the government to lower the spectrum user fees and the station licenses fees. For Globe alone, we are paying billions of pesos for these fees,” Mr. Castelo said.

“As we have known already, the United Nations has declared the internet access as a basic human right, so how can we give universal access if we are impeded by higher fees for giving internet to everyone?”

“We are asking the WiFi frequencies to be free already, because WiFi is supposed to be a public use so dapat libre, so hindi na kami dapat sinisingil ng gobyerno (it should be free, so the goverment should not charge us) when we use the WiFi spectrum,” Mr. Castelo also said.

On the right-of-way issues, he said: “Hopefully, the telecom infrastructure will be considered as one of the critical infrastructures of the government like roads, bridges, and airports.”

“If it’s the government that is going to do the eminent domain or the expropriation for us, then that would save a lot of time,” Mr. Castelo said.

Ang problema ngayon kami ang nag e-expropriate (The problem now is that we are the ones who expropriate), so if there is no agreement as to the amount to be paid, we go to court. ‘Pag nagdemandahan, wala nang mangyayari (If there’s a lawsuit, nothing will be done),” he said.

PCTO has also asked Congress to amend the Building Code of the Philippines to allow telcos to be part of the master plan in building construction.

“Right now, under the building code, the contractor, before constructing a building, they have to have provision already for the electricity and water. We hope that internet and telecom will also be considered as such. It should be mandatory,” Mr. Castelo said.

For his part, Butch SD. Ortega, president of the Philippine Association of Private Telephone Companies, said in a phone interview that the government can extend protection to small operators.

“They had pioneered and sacrificed during the initial years of communication in this country,” Mr. Ortega said.

“The big telcos should no longer operate in the areas of coverage where small operators are operating. I am not saying that we should not have competition. What I am saying is there should be proper regulation by the government, more particularly the NTC.”

He said the NTC should check the certificates of public convenience and necessity (CPCNs) of big telcos.

“I am not saying the government should cut their service. The government should require them to have a CPCN,” Mr. Ortega noted.

“These telcos have nationwide franchises, meaning to say Congress has granted them that privilege to operate, but for regulatory purposes, they are still required to secure CPCN. To my knowledge, there are areas where big telcos operate without a CPCN,” he explained.

Telcos have made big improvements during Mr. Duterte’s term as a result of regulatory reforms he has implemented, Mr. Castelo said.

He also lauded the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA), which streamlined processes in the issuance of permits for the construction of telecommunications towers.

“It’s really fantastic what happened. If we encounter any delay, we just go to ARTA, and ARTA will call out the local government units (LGUs), subdivisions, or agencies that actually create some bottlenecks, so that’s very good,” he said.

Citing data from Ookla, the company behind Speedtest, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) has said the country’s speed rankings for both fixed broadband and mobile internet continued to improve in June.

“Ookla figures for June 2021 indicate that the country’s average download speeds for fixed broadband is now 66.55 megabits per second (Mbps), a 6.82 increase from the 59.73 Mbps speed recorded in May 2021,” the DICT said in a recent statement.

“For mobile internet, the June 2021 speed reached 32.84 Mbps, which shows an increase of 0.86 from the recorded 31.98 Mbps in May,” it added.

“We are gaining ground. Before, we were almost at the bottom part. Now, we are in the middle,” Mr. Castelo said.