Philippine ICT: Changing market, changing policy?

04 May 2015

Continued from part 1

There are sure signs of a changing telecom market in the Philippines, as players align themselves in mergers and network-sharing arrangements.

The telecom/ICT policy landscape is also slowly evolving to address the growing impact of internet technologies. But as in any reform initiative, some players want to retain the status quo as long as possible. Is the policy environment changing fast enough and toward the right direction?

Mergers and network sharing. In 2014, a year after Globe Telecom and Bayan Telecommunications filed a joint application at NTC for a change in controlling interest in Bayantel, NTC had yet to issue a decision on the merger. The reason: PLDT opposed the deal, arguing that it “perpetuates an anti-competitive anti-consumer telecommunications environment”—this coming from a telco who had just completed a merger with Digitel two years prior. PLDT was able to successfully petition the Court of Appeals to issue a temporary restraining order on the merger, which would result in Globe having a 57-percent equity interest in Bayantel. In 2012, NTC had already allowed Globe and Bayan joint use of 10MHz of frequencies assigned to the latter in the 1800MHz band for the provision of mobile phone services. The Court sided with NTC’s approval of Globe and Bayan’s spectrum joint-use agreement. Earlier, NTC had also approved a petition by Globe (through Innove Communications, Inc.) and ABS-CBN (through ABS-CBN Convergene, Inc.) to enter a network-sharing agreement.

Department of ICT bills moving again. On March 16, Senator Ralph Recto delivered his sponsorship speech for Senate bill no. 2686 or “An Act Creating the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).” The Senate version of the bill takes into consideration the rights-based “Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom.” The Lower House also passed its own version at the committee level, but pending a sponsorship speech. Although the DICT bill has been languishing in Congress for over a decade, it’s been said that this time the Senate president considers its passage a priority. Critics oppose a department-level ICT agency because it might create a more bloated bureaucracy. So this time, its proponents are putting emphasis on having a lean but effective ICT department. As I have written some years back, having a department of ICT makes absolute sense. With ICT and ICT-enabled sectors, including e-government services, gaining momentum, a top-level agency needs to be on top of things. According to the grapevine, the Office of the President has given the bill the green light. But a flip-flopping on the matter at this point in the life of the current administration won’t be surprising. And with some 15 months to go, it would be interesting to see if Congress could get the necessary political backstopping to get the bill passed before campaign season begins.

Philippine Digital Strategy (PDS) in limbo. The PDS was crafted to serve as the roadmap for the country’s ICT development. But since the commission on ICT was dissolved, the PDS has not served any relevant purpose other than a “nice to have” document. At the Senate hearings investigating the problems of Philippine internet, for example, some legislators were surprised when told that the PDS defines broadband as internet speed of at least 2 Mbit/s, and that the national target is for 80% of the entire population to be connected at that speed by 2016. Local telcos said that it would cost $16.6 billion to connect 80% of the country. And even if the telcos could expand the infrastructure, they argued that demand (read: return on investment) is not always there. The government is trying to do its end of the bargain through the free public WiFi project, sans an updated PDS or a national broadband plan. With best effort connection of 256 Kbit/s, it’s quite short of the PDS’s target. And since telecom is a monopoly of the private sector, the government will still have to rely on the backhaul network of PLDT and Globe to deliver free WiFi. ICTO plans to use TV White Space in some areas, initially in urban areas. But with the fast uptake of smartphones and many data-hungry Filipinos, technology experts are saying that there’s a risk TV White Space could only deliver at dial-up speed.

Regulator tackles broadband QoS anew. With some pressure from the Senate and ICT reform advocacy groups, the regulator initiated stakeholder consultations to update Memorandum Order (MO) 07-07-2011 on minimum broadband speed. The telcos have consistently argued that Internet is a value-added service (VAS) and therefore deregulated. ICT reform advocacy groups, on the other hand, have argued that the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) is mandated under the law to protect consumer rights in markets where telcos operate. NTC itself has asserted that in instances when public interest is affected, the government can step in. In recent meetings, telcos have boldly suggested that ISPs should be allowed to “self-regulate.” This option should be off the table for the simple reason that self-regulation (read: the absence of effective government regulation) has resulted in very poor and expensive Internet service. The Philippines has one of the slowest average download speeds in Asia and one of the most expensive connections (per Mbps) in the whole world! If NTC does step in (and I hope it does), LIRNEasia, a policy ICT think tank, recommends that it measure the performance of ISPs from the consumer end, not from the core network, and in different domains (within the local ISP, between two local ISPs, and versus an international server). Also, it ought to publish the results on a regular basis so that consumers can have a basis for making informed decisions.

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