In a memorandum issued last Dec. 4, the National Telecommunications Commission directed all public telecommunications entities and internet service providers to ensure very little disruption and downtime of their services this holiday season.
Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba of the NTC issued the memorandum purportedly in anticipation of a surge in internet traffic “considerably due to the pandemic and the imposition of community quarantine measures to minimize if not avoid spread of COVID-19.” He added that, “Christmas parties, gatherings, reunions and other holiday activities are expected to take place online.”
In mandatory language, the NTC further required telco entities and ISPs to “fast track your maintenance efforts, increase internet/broadband capacities, and ensure that business continuity and disaster recovery protocols are in place and functioning, 24/7.”
With the limitations wrought by COVID protocols, what better way to enjoy the celebrations than to be in touch with close friends and relatives through Zoom and other internet-hosted meetings? This all sounds innocuous and not totally deserving of front-page treatment, except that the NTC appears to have gone out of its way to publicize the memorandum.
However, online classes all over the country will also go on a break and will not take up its usual block in internet traffic.
Filipinos have also generally adjusted to the restrictions. Faced with possible sanctions, they are likelier to content themselves with small gatherings limited to immediate family members as they await the success of newly formulated vaccines. So, why the screaming announcement?
A couple of days before the NTC memorandum, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said telecommunication providers should submit a report on their new towers, following what he described to be mounting complaints from customers who experience wi-fi or internet service interruptions.
Roque said that there seemed to be “no improvement yet” on the service of duopoly PLDT and Globe Telecom, and that customers were not satisfied with the slow response of PLDT and Globe.
Interior Secretary Eduardo EduardoAño has reported that more than 2,000 permits and clearances have been approved by local government units in favor of telecommunications companies for them to be able to build their cell towers.
But permits to build do not translate overnight to telephone and wi-fi signals.
To recall, President Rodrigo Duterte in his State of the Nation Address in July told telecoms companies to “improve the services before December.” Telcos can hardly be complacent because when this President speaks you’d know there is an outline for future actions that are jarring in its effects.
“I want to call Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, better have that line cleared.” Duterte said further in his speech that “if you are not ready to improve, I might just as well close all of you and we revert back to the line telephone at kukunin ko ‘yan, expropriate ko sa gobyerno.”
It was after announcing this warning that government got subsequently apprised of the impossibly convoluted red tape that attends the construction and operation of a single cell tower.
Local government chieftains were highlighted as among those who appear to be enjoying, for various reasons, this difficulty experienced by telecoms companies in securing paperwork for technology partners to lay down infrastructure for cellular transmission.
Homeowners’ associations and adjacent villages also routinely oppose the construction of cell sites on various grounds such as the unproven claim that cell site radiation causes health problems like cancer. A municipal mayor would be risking political support in granting permits to structures that are claimed to radiate toxic aura.
The NTC Christmas memorandum may sound harmless but it cannot be read in isolation from a succession of events that do not portend too greatly for corporations that have been branded by top leadership as belonging to oligarchies.
Are telecoms companies on track to meet the December deadline or are they in mortal danger of seizure by government? Is the assessment going to be undertaken on the basis of known standards, or will they have to contend with moving goalposts that can be narrowed or widened based on whim?/WDJ