OPENSIGNAL, a UK-based wireless coverage mapping company, said Wednesday that download speeds and the availability of fourth-generation (4G) network services in the Philippines improved in the first half of the year despite greater reliance on the system during the pandemic.

The average download speed experienced by Filipinos in the first three months rose 21.43% to 8.5 megabits per second (Mbps), from 7 Mbps a year earlier.

The download speed for the second quarter increased 2.67% to 7.7 Mbps.

“Operators in countries with high GDP (gross domestic product) per capita find it easier to invest in the latest network equipment and the cost of rolling out networks in countries with low population densities is higher in those where the population lives only in dense urban areas,” it noted.

“We previously found that when a user’s download speed experience is compared with GDP per capita, the Philippines is in the middle of the pack,” it added.

OpenSignal said that between the last quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2020, the average download speeds observed by users of Globe Telecom, Inc. and Smart Communications, Inc. increased by “3.5 Mbps (84.2%) and 4.3 Mbps (78.1%), respectively.”

“Smart has consistently been in the lead for this measure of the mobile network experience,” OpenSignal noted.

OpenSignal said an important contributing factor was the improvement in the availability of 4G.

“4G availability rises as operators invest in their 4G networks and it is very sensitive in this regard, as the most common dead zones users struggle with occur indoors and this is where most of our availability data is collected. Given that 4G speeds far exceed those typically seen on 3G, an increase in 4G availability is typically associated with a rise in average download speeds,” it explained.

“Between Q4 2017 and Q2 2020, the 4G availability seen by our Filipino users rose by 19.5 percentage points and pushed past the 80% mark. Our users in the Philippines have also seen at least 10 consecutive quarters of improvement in the proportion of time that they spend connected to 4G,” it added.

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

“As we’ve seen, the mobile network experience of our users in the Philippines has improved significantly in terms of both download speed experience and 4G availability since the start of 2018. However, should the Philippines wish to accelerate this trend then one possible approach would be to draw on some of the actions taken by regulators from around the world to ensure that speeds remained resilient despite the increased load on telecommunications networks that was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic — such as increasing the availability of spectrum and cutting red tape,” OpenSignal said.

The Anti-Red Tape Authority recently 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.

Smart is the wireless unit of PLDT, Inc. Hastings Holdings, Inc., a unit of PLDT Beneficial Trust Fund subsidiary MediaQuest Holdings, Inc., has a majority stake in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls. — Arjay L. Balinbin