To combat the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) continuously expands its efforts aimed at improving communications and connectivity services available to the public. Accelerating ICT infrastructure buildup, and improving telecommunications services are critical components of this agenda, as the need for Internet access surges due to social, economic and educational demands during the COVID-19 state of public health emergency.

In a memorandum dated March 12, 2020, the DICT directed the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to monitor the compliance of all operating Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in providing ample bandwidth allocation, and availability of service and signal, based on their respective service level agreements. Pursuant to the said Memorandum, the NTC directed all MNOs and ISPs to submit their Business Continuity Plans detailing measures taken to ensure uninterrupted service and to address the increased demand for ICT services.

In a report to the DICT on its current progress, DITO Telecommunity is on track for its March 2021 commercial launch. According to DITO, they reported the successful series of local and international test phone calls made, with the last of the first test calls made on 27 March 2020 – almost two (2) months earlier than the May 2020 milestone as stated in the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) granted to them by the government.

DITO Telecommunity reported that the local calls made were with the five (5) regional subdivisions representing the five DITO vendors in the country, namely Huawei for North Luzon, Northern and Southern for the National Capital Region (NCR); ZTE for South Luzon and the Visayas; and Huaxin for Mindanao. Two (2) successful international phone calls had also been made, one to Hong Kong and another to Beijing China with China Telecom.

“DITO has informed us that they have, in fact, begun limited user testing and have discussed their plans of expanding this within the next few months under the friendly user test. They have activated a significant number of sites wherein phone calls and connection to the internet are possible, and have put-up, in various stages of completion, a total of one thousand three hundred (1,300) towers on top of the Common Tower Agreements with Independent Tower Contractors they have secured.” DICT Secretary Gregorio B. Honasan II said.

DITO Telecommunity also reported that the pandemic did cause a number of key infrastructure delays as they were approaching peak potential on the roll-out of DITO. Retired Major General Rodolfo Santiago, Chief Technology Officer of DITO, previously mentioned that DITO prepared for any eventuality by putting in place locally sourced materials needed for the roll-out, but as the situation evolved, even local industries had experienced difficulty in meeting their commitments due to COVID-19 pandemic and the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ).

Most of the scheduled material supplies from China such as fiber cables, DC containers, base stations, towers, and telecom ancillaries failed to arrive as scheduled causing delays in the roll-out. Despite these limitations, more than two hundred fifty (250) tower sites are now operational, integrated and on air, and interim network operation centers are in place to allow limited internet connection and phone calls. The hardest hit during the ECQ was the laying of domestic and submarine cables.

In relation to the delay caused by the COVID-19 crisis, the NTC issued a resolution extending the July 2020 technical audit under the CPCN provisions. Under the current extension, DITO is given within six (6) months to deliver the commitments for the technical audit requirements- that is to provide a speed of 27 megabits per second to cover 37% percent of the population.

DITO Chief Administrative Officer Atty. Adel Tamano stressed that only the technical audit schedule was moved.  DITO’s other commitments, such as the commercial launch this March 2021, will proceed as scheduled.

With DITO’s plans of building its network underway, Telco giants PLDT and Globe are each strategizing ways to revamp and upscale their services to meet the growing demand for connectivity in the country.

PLDT returned to the international bond market after 18 years and successfully raised 600 million U.S. dollars from the two-part issuance of the lowest coupon for a 10-year and 30-year offering. The orders reached 10.2 billion dollars or 17 times the amount sold—the largest orderbook size and oversubscription achieved by an issuer driven by institutional investors.

The proceeds from the bond market will primarily serve to refinance PLDT’s existing debt obligations at lower interest rates until 2021, allowing the telco to boost spending for operational and revenue growth.

Globe, for its part, is looking into building cell sites in public schools to ease the transition to blended learning and digital education as face-to-face classes are prohibited pursuant to social distancing measures of the Inter-agency Task Force (IATF).

These private sector efforts, concurrent with the DICT’s strategic issuance of Department Circular (DC) No. 008, s. 2020, that provides for the guidelines on Shared Passive Telecommunications Tower Infrastructure (PTTIs), are expected to improve connectivity services and generate more economic opportunities across the country, in line with the President Duterte’s “Balik Probinsya Bagong Pag-Asa Program.”

“The private telecommunications industry serves a major part in achieving the DICT’s vision of a ‘Digital Philippines’. The quality and coverage of the services they provide highly impact the overall ICT growth of the country,” DICT Secretary Gregorio B. Honasan II said. “The President stressed that the need for reliable Internet connectivity has never been more urgent, so we are accelerating and encouraging digital transformation for both the public and the private sectors to curb the effects of the pandemic on our country’s economy and the continued education of our youth,” he added.