Faster speeds, better internet access in 2017 for laggard Philippines: government

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Department of Information Communications and Technology Secretary Rodolfo Salalima

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Filipinos can bid slow internet speeds goodbye in 2017, the Department of Information Communications and Technology (DICT) said on Monday.

"Next year will be the start of us making the internet faster," DICT Secretary Rodolfo Salalima told CNN Philippines' The Source.

To make this reality, the newly minted department is spearheading a telecoms summit in January 2017 to discuss how to improve internet speed and connectivity in the Philippines, considered to be one of the slowest in Asia.

"From the summit, we'll only be able to see the possible solutions," said Salalima. Pressed for a figure on what faster internet speeds can be expected, he declined to give one.

"I would leave that to the regulator. But definitely you will experience a speedier internet once we have that summit," he said.

Read: Gov't: Cell towers, frequencies to blame for slow Internet

In its latest State of the Internet Report for the first quarter of 2016, the Philippines ranked 14 out of 15 countries in the Asia Pacific region, with an average Internet speed of 3.5 Mbps (megabits per second), said U.S.-based content delivery network Akamai Technologies Inc.

The Philippines' average speed is below the global average of 6.3 Mbps and way below the global topnotcher South Korea, with an average speed of 29 Mbps, the Akamai report added.

To prepare for the January summit, telecom regulators were measuring Internet speeds of the top telecom service providers, Salalima told The Source.

"At the same time also we will call the telcos and ask their problems and we will meet head on their problems," he said.

He said he also expected Internet speed to increase following the purchase by telecoms giants Globe Telecoms and Smart Communications of San Miguel Corp.'s telecom assets which included the prized 700 MHz spectrum.

The 700 MHz spectrum is preferred by telecom providers because it has greater range of coverage and can easily pass through obstacles such as walls or trees.

"I understand that bumilis na 'yung speed ng Internet [I understand that Internet speed is faster] in some areas where the telcos are ruling out their cell sites using the 700 megahertz which they are able to acquire from the San Miguel group," he said.

Less red tape key to better Internet service

On top of zeroing in on telecoms' problems and needs, a key move was to lessen the red tape required to build cell sites across the country, the telecoms chief said.

There are only 15,000 cell sites nationwide, Salalima said, compared to Southeast Asian neighbor "Vietnam which started mobile operations only after us but they have triple or four times than that."

The secretary blamed tedious permit procedures and building constraints for the lack of cell sites.

A draft executive order is being drawn up to cut red tape by bringing down to seven or less the number of days required in total for all levels of government, from local to national, to issue a permit to construct a cell site.

"In that executive order, I am putting about three to seven days only within which the LGUs (local government units) or agencies outside the national government must issue the permit," he said.

In a senate hearing held in January 2015 to improve Internet service in the Philippines, telecom providers testified that it took anywhere from one to six months to secure more than two dozen permits to construct one cell site.

Salalima noted that in August, a memorandum was signed by Salalima's department, and the Departments of Trade and Industry and the Interior and Local Government to speed up the issuance of business permits in the country.

"For permits which are not complicated, only one day. For permits which are little complicated, two days. And for renewal of permits, only one day," the telecoms department chief said.

Hampering cell site construction were protests from private villages fearing that radiation from these sites would affect their health.

He rebutted these claims, saying that the Court of Appeals had already ruled otherwise and declared cell sites safe from harmful radiation.

Nationwide Wi-Fi

The government also plans to put up its own free nationwide broadband connection. The connection will cater to areas and people without access to major networks.

Extended Wi-Fi spots around the country are also in the works. Salalima said the government is eyeing as many as 1,300 Wi-Fi sites for 2016 and 100,000 sites for 2026.

These measures are in line with the government's efforts to broaden people's access to telecommunication, which the United Nations has deemed a human right.

"Telecommunications – the right to communicate – is a basic human right," Salalima said.

"It is the duty of the government to see to it that the people who have no access to the telecommunication system be given the opportunity to exercise the right to telecommunicate," he added.

Room for more competitors

Salalima said that there is still room for more telecom players in the Philippines, while acknowledging that the country's two telecom giants, Smart Communications and Globe Telecoms, were indeed a duopoly.

"Although there are so many telecommunications firms in the country, there are actually two dominant ones. So in a sense you will call it duopoly," he said.

While Smart and Globe have purchased two-thirds of the 700 MHz spectrum, the Government still holds one-third of that spectrum. "That one-third is open for a third player," Salalima said.

"There is nothing in our law that will prevent a third player… The more the competition, the better for our consumers," he said.

However, he also admitted the difficulties a new company competing with the two telecoms giants would face.

"You have to take into consideration that in order for you to compete, you not only have to have the necessary capital… Even if your service is better than the two existing, marketing is a difficult one," he said.