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A towering failure

/ 05:04 AM August 20, 2020

We knew internet performance was poor, but it didn’t really sink in until COVID-19 hit us: Work from home (WFH) found far too many employees without the internet connection needed and without the speed to transact efficiently.

Much of the problem is that this is a country that embraced texting (it’s often regarded as the text capital of the world) when the rest of the world stuck to voice. Texting requires fewer towers as thousands of texts can be done simultaneously, whereas voice calls are one at a time and they have to queue. Add to that the rapid advance in data transmission, which takes up a lot of space, and what were more or less enough towers are now woefully insufficient.

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So I think we all agree with the President that the service is unacceptable. Maybe the two telcos could have done better, but that’s not where the real fault lies. There are two facets to this: speed and coverage. On coverage, the fault lies almost entirely with government bureaucracy, national and local, and mindless opposition from nongovernment agencies (NGAs) such as village associations and barangays (villages) where the delays in processing applications have been excessive—a staggering 241 days or eight months. There are innumerable permits, certificates, steps, and costs just to get construction of a tower started.

Recognizing this, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), sometime around September last year, introduced changes that would drastically reduce the processing time, documentary requirements, and number of steps needed before a tower can be built. The Anti-Red Tape Authority (Arta) joined the effort in January, because the DICT didn’t have the power to enforce the charges on recalcitrant locals. The 241 days’ waiting time was brought down to less than 20, with documentary requirements reduced from 86 to 35, and 12 different permits to eight. Compliance costs have been halved.

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So after the President’s accusation in his Sona, Arta brought nine departments and agencies together to correct this, as it has the power under Republic Act No. 11032 to do so. A joint memorandum circular (JMC 01-2020) was digitally signed that enforces these reductions.

This would have resolved the situation, but now Congress has stepped in and gone one better and suspended the need for most of the permits for three years. Additional towers can now be built.

There are over 20 independent firms interested to build some 50,000 telco towers nationwide, and the three telcos must now design to handle antennas from everyone so a more judicious layout can be arranged. But given that these companies can only build a few towers at one time, and it takes three to four months to build, 50,000 towers certainly won’t be here before Christmas. Based on history, companies can build about 1,000 towers annually so, if all did come in, we’d have the 50,000 towers in about three years. But with viability in question, some builders are threatening to pull out if the government doesn’t improve viability. Nonetheless, coverage will now begin to happen much more quickly.

The DICT has mapped the country as to where towers are best needed, so it will be a holistic approach to providing the most efficient system. The department will then monitor performance once a tower is operating.

As to speed, with the country’s average speed of 23.7 mbps for fixed broadband and 16.2 mbps for mobile internet based on the Speedtest Global Index June 2020, compared to the world average of 78.2 mbps and 34.7 mbps respectively, urgent improvement is obviously needed. But here again, the fault doesn’t primarily lie with the telcos, it’s with poverty. We’re a country where about 20-30 percent of the population still uses 2G and 3G cellphones. Tied in with sparse coverage, they block faster transmission.

The simplest way to explain it is through analogy. Think of Edsa. It’s blocked because too many vehicles are occupying too few lanes. If Edsa had eight lanes one way instead of four, traffic would travel at speed. If jeepneys block the too few lanes, Ferraris can’t travel at speed (2G and 3G phones are blocking the 4G and 5G phones from the speed they can achieve). If you crowd even more vehicles onto Edsa, it slows even more (the higher use of phones, which COVID-19 exacerbated, overloads the system and you end up with a traffic jam).

So the solution to our nightmare is 70,000 cell sites and everyone with a modern cellphone. Plus telcos installing the most modern of equipment, frequently updated. Fiber optic connection directly into houses and offices will help immensely, too, as it’s a dedicated line. This is an area where telcos can speed up (we have a fiber cable to our house that’s been waiting for the equipment to make it usable for months now). Government may have to consider subsidizing not the telcos themselves but some of these measures.

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