Smart says its LTE network ‘passed’ Covid-19 test

Smart Communications said its LTE-powered network has passed the Covid-19 test – but not the type of test that coronavirus conspiracy theorists are peddling regarding the false claim that cellphone networks as the cause of the pandemic.

The PLDT-owned operator is actually referring to the “stress test” that its LTE network was able to withstand from the massive demand for connectivity as a result of the Covid-19 contagion.

“Our LTE-powered mobile data network has passed the initial Covid stress test. The money and effort we’ve invested in our network have enabled us to provide quality service to our mobile phone customers even as data usage continued to rise, particularly since people have been forced to stay at home by the pandemic,” said Alfred S. Panlilio, Smart CEO and PLDT chief revenue officer.

In the first three months of 2020, Smart’s mobile data traffic grew to 636 petabytes (PB) — double the traffic from the same period last year, and a 26-percent increase from end-2019. This pickup in data traffic was largely due to the sustained upswing of data usage since 2018 as Smart customers turned increasingly to using mobile video and social media apps.

As a result, Smart’s service revenues grew 20 percent to P20.2 billion, staying firmly on the growth track from the previous year. The share of data revenues to total wireless consumer revenues rose to 72%, from 65% in the same period last year, and 44% in 2018.

Underpinning the growth of mobile data traffic and revenues has been the continuous expansion and upgrade of PLDT and Smart’s fixed and wireless network. As of end-March, Smart increased the number of 4G/LTE base stations to 26,000, up 6% from end-2019 and 60% more than end-2018.

PLDT’s fiber infrastructure, which supports Smart’s network by providing high-capacity links to LTE base stations, is now at 338,500 kilometers nationwide, 5% more than end-2019 and up nearly 40% from end-2018.

In April, Smart further increased the capacity of its LTE network by reallocating its assigned 1800 Mhz frequency from 2G to 4G/LTE. As a result, 3,785 2G base stations of Smart were converted into LTE base stations, providing additional capacity for its LTE network.

The growth of network capacity has been accompanied by the continuing shift of Smart customers to smartphones. By the first quarter of 2020, about 71% of its customers owned data-capable handsets.

The data usage and revenue numbers of Q1 2020 do not yet fully capture the “Covid effect” since the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was imposed on Luzon only in the second-half of March 2020.

Initially, the ECQ had a dampening impact on Smart’s revenues because restrictions on people’s movements made it difficult for Smart sales personnel to support its network of retailers. But, quick adjustments – including the increased use of the Smart Ka-Partner mobile app to distribute prepaid load to retailers – enabled sales to regain momentum.

Meantime, Smart leveled up its data offers by doubling the data allocation for its postpaid subscribers and beefing up the data packages of its prepaid customers.  This move met head-on the surge in demand for data connectivity and digital services.

Forced to work or study from home, mobile phone users stepped up their usage not only of video and social media, but also of a broad range of other digital services such as video conferencing, online shopping, digital payments and, lately, online medical consultations.

Responding to the new needs of its customers, Smart launched in April its GIGA Work bundle, which features work collaboration apps and productivity tools such as MS Teams, Google Meet and CISCO WebEx for videoconferencing, MS Office 365 and GSuite for work collaboration, and PayMaya, Lazada, Shopee, and Grab for delivery and payments.

“Our goal is to provide solutions that will enable them to pursue their daily lives productively and safely during and after this time of Covid and as everyone adopts to the emerging New Normal,” said Jane J. Basas, senior vice president and head of the wireless consumer business at Smart.

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