By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

THE PLDT group announced on Thursday that it intends to conduct a space-based cellular broadband testing in the country with its US-based partner AST SpaceMobile.

PLDT’s wireless arm Smart Communications, Inc. and AST SpaceMobile recently presented their plans to two government agencies to conduct tests of the latter’s BlueWalker 3 satellite, which is “being designed to communicate directly with unmodified mobile phones from low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite,” the group said in an e-mailed statement.

“Smart will be the first to test this technology in the Philippines,” it added. The plans were presented to the National Telecommunications Commission and the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

In a phone interview, DICT Acting Secretary Emmanuel Rey R. Caintic said the technology “seems feasible.”

“They have not yet determined the specific testing areas,” he added.

“The digital divide is a massive concern that was further highlighted by the restrictions brought about by the pandemic. Given our country’s archipelagic nature, deploying typical terrestrial broadband infrastructure across the Philippines has been a challenge, especially in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDAs),” Mr. Caintic said in a separate statement.

“Fortunately, newer technologies in satellites are capable of providing much-needed cellular connectivity with more flexibility in their deployment. LEO satellites are an excellent addition to our solution set as they offer low latency, high throughput internet to our GIDAs, and AST SpaceMobile’s technology which is being designed to directly connect to ordinary smartphones could be a game-changer,” he added.

Smart Communications Head of Regulatory Roy Cecil D. Ibay said: “PLDT and Smart have always been at the forefront of innovation, and we are always ready to work hand-in-hand with government to support its thrust to connect more Filipinos across the country and help revitalize the post-pandemic digital economy.”

The PLDT group has said the satellite technology can help in disaster preparedness and resiliency efforts by providing an alternative network in times of calamities, which can impact cell sites on the ground.

The service is expected to reach remote areas to enable online learning, e-commerce and online banking for indigenous peoples in the mountains and farmers in rural areas, and cater to Filipinos out at sea.

Hastings Holdings, Inc., a unit of PLDT Beneficial Trust Fund subsidiary MediaQuest Holdings, Inc., has a stake in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls.