Connectivity is key: Staying connected in time of pandemic

By Raymond Carl Dela Cruz

December 30, 2020, 4:18 pm

<p>A communication tower.<em> (PNA file photo)</em></p>

A communication tower. (PNA file photo)

MANILA – In his fifth State of the National Address (SONA) in July, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte ordered telecommunication giants PLDT-Smart and Globe to improve their services or face possible seizure of their assets by the government.

This, plus the increased strain on telecommunications services brought by heavy demand for connectivity during the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic necessitated big changes to be made in the telecommunications industry. From students attending classes online to grown-ups doing their transactions online and working from home, saying that internet connectivity is important has become an understatement.

In July, nine government agencies -- led by the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) and the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) -- signed a joint memorandum circular on streamlining the process of applications for permits and other documentary requirements to build shared telecommunications towers or common towers.

Since then, the country’s players in telecommunications reported an increase in the installation and upgrading of cell sites after streamlining their requirements.

In December, Globe reported 211 new cell sites and 867 site upgrades in November alone and is on track to build a total of 1,300 new cell sites this year despite limitations brought by the pandemic such as inaccessibility of some areas.

This, compared to 500 new cell sites in 2018, and 1,100 in 2019.

It said Quezon City, one of the cities that received the most upgrades and new sites in the country, has been equipped with 99 new cell towers and 917 site upgrades from January to November.

In 2021, Globe is planning to install the greatest number of cell towers “in the company’s history” by installing at least 2,000 new cell sites.

PLDT-Smart also reported securing a record number of permits in the second half of 2020.

Since July, Smart has secured over 2,500 permits to build more cell towers, while PLDT has secured around 4,000 permits.

As of November, Smart has increased the number of its base stations to over 58,000 -- an increase of 20 percent compared to 2019.

To date, Smart has over 10,000 sites in the country, with 700 new cell sites by the end of the year with plans to roll 2,000 new cell sites in 2021.

Aside from investing in upgrading wireless services, PLDT’s fiber infrastructure now spans more than 422,000 kilometers and covers 96 percent of the Filipino population through Smart’s mobile networks.

By the end of the year, it hopes to roll out its home broadband service to 48 percent of all cities and municipalities in the country.

Improved download, upload speeds

In a report by United States-based broadband testing company Ookla in August, both fixed broadband and mobile broadband internet speeds in the Philippines have more than doubled since 2016.

From an average download speed for fixed broadband services of 7.91 megabits per second (mbps) in July 2016, the country had an average download speed of 25.07 mbps in July 2020 -- a 216.94 percent improvement.

For mobile broadband, the country had an average download speed of 7.44 mbps in July 2016 compared to an average download speed of 16.95 mbps in July 2020 -- an increase of 127.82 percent.

Out of the 45 countries in the Asia Pacific, Ookla said the Philippines is ranked 20th for fixed broadband and 25th for mobile broadband based on country-wide average download speeds. 

‘Fastest’ in PH

In a separate report, Ookla awarded both PLDT and Smart as the fastest fixed internet and mobile network providers in the country for the first half of 2020.

PLDT won with a “speed score” of 24.79 with a top speed of 70.54 mbps download and 85.38 mbps upload.

Converge ICT placed second in the report with a speed score of 21.53, followed by SKY Broadband with 15.56, and Globe Broadband with 9.17.

For the mobile network providers, Smart was considered the fastest with a speed score of 18.33 with an average speed of 15.94 mbps for download and 7.57 mbps for upload.

Globe came in second with a speed score of 12.35 with an average download speed at 11.96 mbps and average upload speed at 4.04 mbps.

Free Wi-Fi

To ensure that even remote areas in the country are connected, the DICT has launched its ‘Free Wi-Fi for All Program’ in July.

In August, it said about 4,600 free Wi-Fi sites have already been installed, with a goal of 10,069 Wi-Fi sites in the country by the end of the year.

By 2021, it aims to have a total of 23,100 free Wi-Fi sites across the country, with a priority on remote areas.

Higher DICT budget in 2021

In December, Congress allocated PHP1.9 billion to the DICT in the proposed 2021 budget -- twice the government’s proposed PHP902.194 million in the National Expenditure Program -- on top of a PHP2.667 billion budget for the free Wi-Fi program.

The increase in budget is to be used in the DICT’s National Broadband Program -- once the program’s first phase is completed, it said the project will lessen government spending on internet bandwidth from about PHP420,000 a year for an agency with 100 mbps, to only PHP60,000.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives ratified the PHP4.5 trillion 2021 national budget on Dec. 9. (PNA)