Technology should not elicit complexity since that is the very thing it seeks to solve. It is meant to simplify everyday things by allowing seamless communication, bringing people closer together, shortening tedious processes and making available useful information instantly within seconds. But that is not the case at all in the Philippines. While we can all be satisfied with our own data plans and Internet connections, anyone who spends a few days in a First-World country would immediately realize that the Information Communications Technology (ICT) we get in the Philippines is scrap material.
Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, the destiny of our country’s ICT falls on the shoulders of the esteemed legislators we elect to their positions. The senators and congressmen can claim that they have enacted the proper laws, such those for Free Wi-Fi, National ID System, Telecommuting Act and establishment of Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) and National Privacy Commission in recent years, including the approval of their respective budgets to fund its ICT initiatives. However, the potential of these efforts would not come into full fruition should the Internet remain slow and expensive and if the market is controlled monopolized rather — by two huge companies.
There are two ongoing discussions that will determine the fate of our country’s ICT. First, the disagreement between members of the Executive branch on the number of private companies that may build cellular towers in the country; second, the ongoing hearings at the Senate regarding the franchise of Mislatel, the supposed third telco player. Both issues involve a messy, but resolvable, dispute or wrangling of power between government and the private sector. Verily, one cannot live without the other.
Anent the first issue, high-ranking officials of Duterte’s administration are at a quandary, thanks to the unpopular policy forced by Presidential Adviser RJ Jacinto that only two companies, not including PLDT and Globe, may put up the much needed 50,000 cellular towers. At a Senate hearing, Jacinto blinked and agreed to up to four companies, but people say that it should be better to bring in more, consistent with the position of DICT acting Secretary Eliseo Rio, who is quick in getting the support of the private sector. To date, Rio has entered into memorandum of understanding (MoU) with six companies, namely, ISOC Infrastructures (partnered with OCK Group of Malaysia), ISONECP Tower Singapore Pte. Ltd, IHS Towers (Nigeria), Edotco Group (Malaysia), China Energy Equipment Co. Ltd. and RT Telecom (Malaysia).
While these MoU are legally non-binding, these are baby steps towards entering into a live contract with the Philippine government. With the impending entry of Sen. Gregorio Honasan as Secretary of DICT, this impasse should be resolved soon. In the meantime, DICT is correct in canvassing services among qualified providers to ensure maximum sustainability once the administration finally decides on how many tower companies will be permitted to construct.
As for the Mislatel franchise, the roadblock parked by the Senate may be characterized as political in nature, though the concerns raised by veteran lawyer and legislator Sen. Franklin Drilon are legal in nature. To recall, Drilon posed that the Mislatel franchise is ipso facto revoked by its failure to operate within a year from its granting. At the recent Senate hearing, Drilon found support from his fraternity brod, IBP president Abdiel Fajardo. On the other hand, Mislatel got support from the Office of the Solicitor General on their position that a quo warranto petition, popularized by the CJ Sereno impeachment episode, must first be filed before a franchise may be revoked, citing the cases of Divinagracia v. Consolidated Broadcasting System Inc. (G.R. 162272, 7 April 2009) which, in turn, made reference to PLDT v. NTC (G.R. 88404, 18 October 1990).
This puts reelectionist Sen. Grace Poe in a precarious position. She is yet to be endorsed by Duterte — a vital endorsement she may use despite her being a consistent topnotcher in the surveys. The easy way out is to refer this matter to the courts to decide, putting Duterte-supporter (or financier) Dennis Uy out of her hair, or she may come up with a Solomonic recommendation that would make all parties — the administration, opposition and, most important, the Filipino public — happy and satisfied. Time will tell. In the end, we must always be mindful that for a country to maximize its resources, achieve its highest potential for the benefit of all its citizens, there must be a strong and transparent partnership between government and the private sector.