Saga of the towers
The government has decided a third player is necessary in the telecommunications market to provide fiercer competition. But it’s going to be a difficult task to invade the market.
In the meantime, controversies rage over the building of towers. The telcos (called mobile network operators, or MNOs) want to be able to build their own, but there are a host of issues involved: Should they have to share? Should the new player be allowed space on their existing towers? Should foreigners be allowed to build? How will low-revenue areas be handled?
The final answers are yet to come, and the stakeholders continue to argue their case with passion.
From my point of view, the first thing that should be done is to do a digital map of the archipelago. Work with the three telcos and determine precisely where towers are needed and in what priority they’re needed. Only then can it be determined how to provide them.
It’s been generally touted that 50,000 towers are needed on top of the current 17,000. This is based on the international standard of 0.5 towers for every 1,000 subscribers. We have 0.14. We need more, lots more, and faster than the MNOs have the capability to provide.
According to the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), the two MNOs are planning about 1,000 towers this year. That’s way short of getting to 50,000, so help is needed. As to how many should be permitted to build those towers, two is too few, given the demand and speed necessary. More are needed, and there seems to be a compromise developing to make it four MNOs.
However, many agree that the towers must be built to rigid standards, capable of withstanding earthquakes and typhoons. I have no idea why MNOs would still want to build towers when it’s not their core business. Let someone else do it, and they can use that money instead to buy more of the radio equipment needed. This is where the digital map and stakeholder discussion come in. If the MNOs still want to build, let them, but these towers should be available for lease at competitive rates monitored by the NTC.
What is really needed is for the government to ensure that they, and especially local governments and villages, provide all the necessary permits and right of way fast. The process should be devoid of insufferable delays and complexities; this is, in today’s world, an essential public service.
The point is, MNOs aren’t the only ones in need of towers. The smaller local guys do, too, as well as broadband providers; maybe even radio stations or anyone who wants to transmit a signal. That may require a taller, larger tower in those instances.
Then comes the tough one. It’s a bit unfair to allow Mislatel to share, as the company then won’t incur the high capital cost Globe and Smart had to, but I think the two will agree as they can generate funds from the lease.
Should foreigners be allowed to build towers? That’s a no-brainer. Why not? A tower is not a public utility where there are limits. It’s just a provider for those public services.
Underserved and unserved areas where revenues are still low must have mobile phones, as these are now as essential as a pair of pants in the increasingly digitized world. No one should be without a smartphone, but the government should subsidize the cost of connectivity to these missionary routes by providing the necessary fiber network to reach these areas, and then lease it to the telcos, or even provide for free where revenue would be insufficient. This is what’s commonly done in other countries, similar to what is done with roads. Tower builders must be able to price their lease rates to cover insufficient revenues from poor rural areas, and provide an incentive to build there. The government should subsidize if it’s still insufficient.
What must not be forgotten is that these are all being done so users will get the best, fastest, cheapest service available. So they, along with the telcos, should be brought together in any discussion on what needs to be done.
It is time to stop the arguments and build.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.