PHL broadband market expanding but needs more support — telcos

PHILSTAR FILE PHOTO

By Luisa Maria Jacinta C. JocsonReporter

THE Philippine broadband market is expanding beyond the perceived duopoly, but there is a need for increased support to enhance service efficiency and reduce costs, according to industry players.

Globe Telecom, Inc. Chief Sustainability and Corporate Communications Officer Maria Yolanda C. Crisanto responded to a recent World Bank study characterizing the market as an “effective duopoly with two large telcos,” saying that the ‘duopoly’ label “disregards certain players that have already made a dent in the market.”

“Looking at revenue data it cited, the study inaccurately compared Globe’s total 2022 revenues of P158 billion with a pure broadband competitor’s P34 billion. This fails to take into account that Globe offers a full suite of ser-vices including mobile, broadband, and a host of digital solutions from its non-telco business,” she said in an e-mail.

The World Bank study said that “Globe and PLDT Inc./Smart are vertically integrated.”

“They own international connectivity, backbone, middle- and last-mile networks and have the majority subscriber share. Over 500 providers acting as retailers rely on wholesale infrastructure, either from the duopoly or market challengers,” it noted.

The government should promote pro-competition policy reforms and encourage investments to help enhance broadband infrastructure and narrow the digital divide in the country, the study also said.

The study cited data showing that in 2022, PLDT’s revenues reached P205 billion, Globe recorded P175 billion, and Converge ICT Solutions, Inc. earned just P34 billion.

Ms. Crisanto noted that Globe’s broadband revenue alone in 2022 was P27.1 billion.

For its part, the PLDT group highlighted its commitment to enhancing services despite challenges.

“Amid macroeconomic challenges and heightened competition in the telco landscape in the Philippines, PLDT and its wireless arm Smart Communications, Inc. remain steadfast in their commitment to support the steady rise in network traffic and deliver leveled-up services to their customers nationwide,” the group said in a statement.

This is achieved through “continuously investing in enhancing and expanding the Group’s integrated fixed and wireless networks, enabling improved customer experience,” it added.

As of end-September, PLDT’s fiber infrastructure is at over 1.1 million kilometers and supports some 6.15 million fiber ports, covering 18,000 barangays nationwide. Meanwhile, Smart’s mobile network covers 97% of the country’s population with 3G, 4G/LTE and 5G services, it added.

In September, Globe also announced that it had built about 356 new 5G sites, which resulted in 5G outdoor coverage of 97.44% in the National Capital Region and 91% in parts of Visayas and Mindanao.

“Both firms are the market leaders in the broadband sector, but it does not mean that they can effectively control the market and regulatory environment in the sector,” Terry L. Ridon, a public investment analyst and convenor of InfraWatch PH, said in an e-mail.

“Converge has been implementing its own growth strategy despite the market leadership of both Globe and PLDT/Smart,” he added.

Meanwhile, Ms. Crisanto said that Globe supports the World Bank’s call for further support from the government to “address infrastructure challenges inhibiting the equitable delivery of connectivity across the country.”

“Telcos have been relentlessly investing in infrastructure, including capex-intensive submarine cables to link the islands across the archipelago and reach underserved areas. But with over 100 million people to connect, telcos cannot do it alone,” she said.

PLDT said it is also a primary challenge for Philippine telcos to keep products affordable and maintain a network across the archipelago.

“The PLDT group continues to optimize its network striving to make its operations more efficient, in order to keep leveling up the experience of customers while at the same time offering value-for-money fixed broadband and wireless products and services,” it added.

World Bank data showed that among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines is the least favorable on policy environment for affordable broadband and is among the slowest in the world in promoting reforms to make it more affordable.

In 2022, household penetration for fixed broadband in the Philippines was just at 33% while the cost of fixed broadband was more than four times more expensive than Malaysia and Vietnam and more than double the ASEAN average.

Meanwhile, active subscribers for mobile broadband in 2022 were at 70 per 100 inhabitants, the lowest among large ASEAN economies.

PLDT said it is working with local governments to help deploy faster fiber connectivity to more cities and municipalities.

“Supporting the government’s bid to narrow the digital divide, the PLDT Group has thrown its full support behind the government’s overall digitalization thrust through continued support for its digitalization initiatives and par-ticipation in crafting various telco-related policies,” it said.

The group said it is also working with industry stakeholders to help streamline processes for setting up telecommunications and internet infrastructure and enhancing digital skills of Filipinos.

“PLDT has likewise continued to invest in international cable systems such as the Jupiter Cable System, which is the fastest international cable direct to the US and Japan, as well as in its network of Data Centers, furthering the country’s ambition to be a hyperscale destination in the region,” it added.

Meanwhile, Globe said it is hoping to see more policy changes from the government to help provide further support to telcos.

“Globe looks forward to more policy reforms to remove other barriers to connectivity, including legislation that will mandate the provision of telco space in developments, and revisions to the National Building Code to make telecommunications services a mandatory component in building plans and housing developments at no cost to telco providers,” Ms. Crisanto said.

She also cited the government’s National Broadband Plan, which aims to bring equitable broadband connectivity to the entire country.

“Globe is also pushing for the removal of lease charges on in-building solutions, for which building owners and developers charge telcos in the millions annually,” Ms. Crisanto said.

“Electricity and water providers are not charged for necessary equipment in developments and can easily plug into entrance conduits. Telecommunications equipment must be treated the same and considered in building plans and construction,” she added.

MORE MARKET PLAYERS NEEDED

There is still a need for the government to push for policies to attract more market players, analysts said.

“The observation that weak competition hampers broadband expansion is consistent with economic theory, as competition typically incentivizes efficiency, innovation, and investment,” Globalinks Securities and Stocks, Inc. Head of Sales Trading Toby Allan C. Arce said in a Viber message.

“In a duopoly, the lack of a robust competitive environment may lead to less pressure for companies to invest in improving services, lowering prices, or expanding coverage,” he added.

In a report released in March, Moody’s Investors Service said that PLDT and Globe will remain the leading telecom operators, with DITO Telecommunity Corp. playing “catch-up.”

As of end-2022, data from Moody’s showed that PLDT’s subscriber market share was at around 43% while Globe’s was at 57%.

“However, PLDT has consistently retained revenue market share of over 50% since the second quarter of 2019. While competition can chip away at market share, we expect PLDT to maintain its stronghold with over 50% reve-nue market share through 2024,” Moody’s added.

Ronald B. Gustilo, national campaigner for Digital Pinoys, said that it is imperative to open the market and push for further competition between the players.

This would “introduce innovation, broaden consumer choices, and potentially lead to lower prices, improved services and a more dynamic industry,” Mr. Gustilo said in a Viber message.

“This could be achieved through regulatory measures that reduce barriers to entry, promote fair competition, and incentivize new players to invest in broadband infrastructure,” he added.

Mr. Arce likewise said that there would need to be regulatory measures to help reduce barriers to the entry of new players, such as streamlining licensing processes.

“Updating policies to promote competition, encourage investment, and protect consumers’ interests is crucial. Governments can work towards creating a regulatory framework that ensures a level playing field and promotes healthy competition,” he said.

“Governments can provide incentives for broadband infrastructure investment. This could include tax breaks, subsidies, or other financial incentives to attract private sector investments,” he added.

Mr. Gustilo said that the regulatory framework must also prioritize providing reliable and quality internet to the public.

“Consumers rely heavily on broadband for various activities, including work, education, and entertainment. A robust regulatory approach is essential to ensure that service providers adhere to standards that guarantee reliable and high-quality internet connections,” he said.

“Regulators, however, should be quick to undo commercial arrangements which may tend to abuse market dominance, such as the exclusivity arrangement of telcos and property developers. This is an area which should clearly be subject to market forces to provide consumers the power of choice,” Mr. Ridon added.

Mr. Arce said there is a need for the government and private sector to collaborate and share the risks in expanding broadband structure; create measures to prevent unfair contracts and poor service quality; and prioritize environmentally friendly and future-proof infrastructure.

“Policies should be designed to be technology-neutral, allowing for flexibility in the choice of technologies used to deliver broadband services. This can encourage innovation and the adoption of the most efficient technologies,” Mr. Arce said.

“By fostering a more competitive and dynamic broadband market, the Philippines can enhance infrastructure development, provide better services to consumers, and contribute to narrowing the digital divide,” he added.

Hastings Holdings, Inc., a unit of PLDT Beneficial Trust Fund subsidiary MediaQuest Holdings, Inc., has a majority stake in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls