By Jenina P. Ibañez, Reporter
Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

THE Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) ordered local governments to release pending permits for telecommunications towers, applying the rules of the Ease of Doing Business law to remove bottlenecks in the tower permit process.

The first batch of compliance orders were sent to 11 local government units (LGU), including Puerto Princesa, Masbate, and Kalibo, after telecommunication and tower companies sent their list of pending applications with complete requirements, ARTA said in a press release on Tuesday.

Applications that have exceeded seven days from completion will be declared automatically approved.

The seven-day deadline complies with the law’s time limit for “complex transactions.” The law requires government agencies to observe three types of deadline: Three working days for simple transactions, seven working days for complex transactions, and 20 working days for highly technical applications.

ARTA said that Smart Communications, Inc. is continuing to verify more applications, while Globe Telecom Inc. has yet to submit its list.

The LGUs will be ordered to submit a compliance report three days after they receive the order.

The report should include a list of all approved and pending applications, as well as those requiring approval from the local government’s Sanggunian. The report should also include an explanation on why permits are still pending.

The first batch of compliance orders were sent to Puerto Princesa City and Rizal in Palawan, Miag-ao, Cabatuan, Estancia, and Leon in Iloilo, Kalibo in Aklan, Masbate City, Bulan in Sorsogon, Canaman in Camarines Sur, and San Jose in Occidental Mindoro.

“There is no more choice for the (LGUs) or (National Government agencies) but to issue the appropriate permits because it was already approved by Congress itself. Refusal to follow this very clear provision of the law will lead to (administrative) and criminal cases to be filed. Kaya sumunod po tayong lahat!,” ARTA Director-General Jeremiah B. Belgica said.

Interior Secretary Eduardo M. Año said that 428 applications for cell tower permits are still pending with LGUs this year, while 1,502 have been approved.

The Office of the Mayor at Kalibo, Aklan said it would facilitate the applications of the telecommunications companies.

“We also need these telcos, so as far as I know, the mayor has no opposition as far as the operation here. The local government here wouldn’t stand in the way of it,” Basil Tabernilla, executive assistant to Kalibo Mayor Emerson S. Lachica, said in a telephone interview.

“The mayor wouldn’t stand in the way (of the automatic approval)… For as long as it is above board, for as long as there is no violation of local and national laws, the mayor would always agree to that.”

ARTA derives its authority from Republic Act 11032, or the Ease of Doing Business and Efficient Government Service Delivery Act of 2018.

A joint task force including ARTA, the Department of Interior and Local Government, and the Department of Information and Communications Technology is being formed to carry out administrative and criminal prosecutions against officials obstructing permits.

Nine government agencies in July signed a memorandum circular fast-tracking permit approval for the building of shared telecommunications towers by reducing the required number of permits.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte in his recent State of the Nation Address threatened to shut down telecommunication companies if they fail to improve their service by December. A subsequent meeting with industry officials identified local governments as the bottleneck.

Meanwhile, Information and Communications Technology Undersecretary Ramon P. Jacinto renewed his push to limit the number of firms allowed to build common towers, saying that foreign companies raised concerns about the policy guidelines that allow existing telecommunications companies to build towers.

May questions pa rin d’yan ang malalaking investors. Kasi ang marunong lang ng common tower ay mga foreigner. May experience sila. Wala pa tayong common tower company dito na may experience (The big investors have questions. Foreign companies know how to build common towers. They have the experience. We don’t have companies with that experience),” he said at a virtual forum on Wednesday, referring to the Department Circular No. 8 signed by Secretary Gregorio B. Honasan II on May 29.

Mr. Jacinto said some foreign tower builders submitted a letter to Mr. Honasan expressing concerns over the guidelines.

“They wanted the guidelines improved, the interim guidelines,” he said, adding that IHS, a South African firm, had already backed out.

Mr. Jacinto said there are still “about five substantial tower companies” that are interested, but may also back out if concerns are not addressed.

He said the existing common tower guidelines should be improved immediately. The task to build the common towers should be given to “experienced big companies” in the first four years of the implementation, he said.

To recall, Mr. Jacinto proposed to limit the number of common tower companies to two.

Under the guidelines signed by Mr. Honasan, mobile network operators or telcos may build new telecommunication towers, but they should “provide ample access slots” for other players and the DICT to “co-locate, mount or install their respective antennas, transmitters, receivers, radio frequency modules, radio-communications systems, and other similar active ICT equipment.”

Tower companies should have relevant construction experience, registration, license, and financial capacity, equivalent to a category A contractor or higher of the Philippine Contractors Accreditation Board.

PLDT Public Affairs Head and Spokesperson Ramon R. Isberto expressed support for the government’s initiative to roll out common towers to improve the country’s connectivity.

“We recognize it is a common practice all over the world, and we are receptive and supportive of that policy as well. That is why we’ve already signed agreements with six tower companies, and we have an initial target rollout of about 180 to 200 cell sites,” he said.

Mr. Isberto said the company is eyeing more agreements with other tower companies.

DICT’s Mr. Jacinto said there are only about 20,000 cell towers nationwide, and the country needs about 40,000 more to be on par with other countries in the ASEAN region.

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.