PH spectrum policy needs overhaul, says ICT advocacy group

By Ike Suarez

The Filipino people own the country’s radio frequency spectrum — a scarce and limited resource. As such, their interest must serve as the primary guide for regulators in the granting of spectrum assignments to private parties such as telecommunications operators and broadcast media companies.

Democracy.Net.PH co-founder Pierre Tito Galla. Photo credit: Philippine Navy

Democracy.Net.PH co-founder Pierre Tito Galla. Photo credit: Philippine Navy

This was one of the points raised by Pierre Tito Galla, co-founder of the civil society group Democracy.Net.PH, as he testified recently before the Committee on Information and Communications Technology of the House of Representatives chaired by Tarlac representative Victor Yap.

Galla’s testimony formed part of the hearings the committee is holding in line with House Resolution 1338 directing it to investigate the management — or mismanagement — by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) of the country’s radio frequency spectrum.

He said only spectrum designated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for telecommunications, telemetry, navigation and life safety, and broadcast must be subject to licensing.

Unlicensed spectrum must be the norm to encourage innovation and invention in the country, Galla pointed out, adding that public use must take primary consideration whenever regulators are to determine whether a frequency is to be licensed or unlicensed.

In his testimony, Galla, speaking for Democracy.Net.PH, said a number of initiatives would have to be taken to reform Philippine spectrum policy. Among these are the following:

• A periodic review and re-farming of spectrum assignments to take place at least every three years

• Short-term spectrum use privileges with assignments lasting only five to 10 years or even less

• Such assignments would be subject to immediate clawback if unused, or after non-payment of spectrum user fees, or after re-farming of frequencies

• Unused and re-farmed assignable spectrum must be assigned through open tenders and auctions

• There must be reserved for future competition a reasonable percentage of assignable channels

• A “use it or leave it” policy must be in place with regard to spectrum use privileges

• The clawback policy must be based on the principle, “what is administratively assigned must also be administratively revoked”

• Spectrum assignments must be at the provincial — not national — level

• A telco must first build towers in a location before being assigned a spectrum there

• There must be clawback and immediate freeing up in assignments of unlicensed spectrum, some of them being Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, citizens band, VHF, and ham radio currently assigned to various entities

• Such unlicensed spectrum must remain unlicensed for public use

In his testimony, Galla said that currently, there is an absence of periodic review by the NTC of spectrum assignments and spectrum rights holders.

He also said the privilege of spectrum use in the Philippines is, in effect, “unlimited”. This is due to the fact that when granted by Congress, this privilege lasts for 25 years and is renewable for another 25 years.

Other defects in present spectrum policy cited by Galla are the following:

• Spectrum assignments are done on a “beauty contest” basis

• The NTC does not practice reservation of channels for future players

• Spectrum assignments are granted on the basis of “ spectrum sales” even as spectrum rights are used as fungible assets

• Spectrum use privileges are assigned administratively, but their revocation is done through quasi-judicial processes

“Private entities must not forget that being a spectrum rights holder is a privilege, not a right or chattel,” he said, adding that they are not vested with ownership of their assigned frequencies.

Galla, an electronics and communications engineer, helped found Democracy.Net.PH in 2012 to advocate a thorough overhaul of Philippine telecoms law to improve the state of ICT in the country.

“Our membership consists of various stakeholders in the ICT space, and who are interested in pushing for ICT reforms anchored on rights, governance, development and security,” he said.

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