Telcos urged to address slow Internet speed for e-learning in provinces

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Lawmakers are calling on local telcos to find a way to speed up the slow Internet speed in the provinces with the opening for public schools fast approaching on Oct. 5.

Senators Sherwin Gatchalian and Grace Poe

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian has urged more wholesale bandwidth providers to enter the provincial market to improve the speed of Internet service for distance learning.

Gatchalian made the call after telecommunications companies in the provinces revealed during a Senate hearing that they can only provide 2 megabits per second (Mbps) up to 20 Mbps of Internet speed, way below the average for live events. The minimum speed for streaming video is at least 3 Mbps.

This raised concern to Gatchalian in the wake of the scheduled school opening when the country’s estimated 28 million learners would begin to take lessons online.

“When school opens on October 5, we have a total of 27.9 million learners — 24.5 million kinder to senior high school and 3.4 million in the tertiary level expected to depend on Internet connectivity. We can anticipate Internet congestion especially during peak hours when most, if not all, are online for their distance learning,” said Gatchalian.

“Small players, who in effect act as resellers to their subscribers, need to buy more bandwidth from the service providers. It could even bring down the high cost of Internet service,” the senator added.

Gatchalian also took note of the lack of digital infrastructures in the provinces.

Currently, there are 17,850 existing cell sites in the Philippines according to the 2019 3rd Quarter Report by TowerXChange, an informal network advisor in the market tower industry worldwide. But the country, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) recently said, needs at least 50,000 additional cell towers to improve services.

“While we cannot address this overnight, considering the infrastructure gap in this issue, there’s still a solution in sight to address the clamor for improved telecommunication services as we struggle in adapting to the new normal,” Gatchalian pointed out.

He was referring to the provision in the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act or Bayanihan 2 which gives telcos a three-year window to construct cell towers without the issuance of close to 40 permits from concerned national agencies and local government units (LGUs).

Except for the building permit, Bayanihan 2 temporarily suspends for three years the requirements to secure other permits and clearances for the construction of telecommunications and Internet infrastructure.

Gatchalian urged stakeholders to take advantage of the said suspension of the documentary requirements and permits in building cell towers.

Walang hindi makikinabang kung bibilis na ang Internet connectivity dito sa atin. Mula bata, na ngayon ay nakadepende na sa distance learning, hanggang sa pinaka simpleng pangangailangan natin — food deliveries, bills payment at kung anu-ano pa — lahat pwede mo nang magawa online. Sana samantalahin ng mga telcos ang pagkakataon na binibigay sa kanila ng batas,” he said.

Sen. Grace Poe also asked telecommunications companies to expedite the construction of connectivity infrastructure to improve Internet service for children and students who need to rely increasingly on online education.

A survey conducted by the Asian Development Bank Institute revealed that 46 percent of Filipino families with children are not attending school because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the second highest number in its survey of eight ASEAN nations next to Myanmar.

“Telcos need to improve Internet services now more than ever. Education is key in lifting people out of poverty. Keeping them deprived of Internet services is akin to condemning them to poverty,” Poe said.

“The pandemic only underscored the heightened need for better Internet service for students and people working from home. Connectivity, on its own, is not the great equalizer but it’s crucial,” she added.

At a Senate hearing, Poe invited various government agencies to the franchise hearing to provide information on telcos’ compliance to regulations.

“We grant a franchise only after establishing that there is a public need for such a service and that the applicant has the means to adequately provide it. We want to make sure that all applicants are fit to offer their avowed public service so as to encourage competition and drive companies to provide better service,” Poe said.

The franchises of Bayan Telecommunications, Cruz Telephone Company, and Tandag Electric and Telephone Company were on the agenda at the hearing.

Poe asked telcos for their targets and concrete plans in rolling out infrastructure in the last quarter of the year to ensure that they are taking advantage of supportive regulations to fast-track improvements in their services.

She also called on major players to strengthen their partnerships with small telcos in the provinces, especially in remote areas, to make them most beneficial to subscribers.

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