Permits, health concerns delay cell site expansion

MANILA, Philippines – Government agencies, telcos, and the private sector agreed on one thing at the first Philippine Telecoms Summit: lengthy permit applications are still the biggest reason why Philippine internet is so slow.

A lot of statistics were shown at the event organized by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) on Thursday, March 9. But what was most damning was this: the Philippines' average internet speed is now dead last in the Asia Pacific region at 4.5 Mbps, according to the latest report by Akamai. The country's internet is now slower than India's, previously the slowest in the region. (Read: Average internet speed in PH slightly declines in Q3 2016 – report)

And it's all because of the fact that telcos are having trouble putting up new cell sites, thanks to the absurd amount of permits and the time it takes for local government units (LGUs) to process them.  

Permits, permits, permits

According to Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Assistant Secretary Janvier Echiverri, it takes at least 24 steps and 98 days to finally secure a construction permit – barring redtape or other roadblocks. The goal, currently, is to limit that to 16 steps and 61 days with the new procedures, he said. 

Aside from streamlining procedures, Guillermo Luz of the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) encouraged concerned units to take their permit application processes online. Manual processing is paper-based, laborious and takes too long, he said. Other countries that have digitized their processes have limited processing to a mere 1 day. 

Luz suggested giving out awards to local government units (LGU) with the lowest number of permits and have fast and inexpensive processes. Currently, tower fees imposed by LGUs cost from P200,000 to P250,000, said Echiverri.

Luz also illustrates that the LGUs themselves will benefit from better internet if they could just fast-track their processes.

LGU BENEFITS. Photo by Gelo Gonzales/Rappler

LGU BENEFITS.

Photo by Gelo Gonzales/Rappler

Salalima declared a bolder deadline for processing of permits from application to finally building a tower: 7 days. The head of the concerned LGU will then have 2 days to decide to reject or approve an application. If no decision has been made, the permit will be deemed approved.

Salalima also proclaimed that they will go after the "frequency hoarders," companies that keep rights to network frequencies but don't utilize them to enhance services. Salalima calls this practice "sampay-bakod," and companies that practice this shouldn't be given the frequency rights. There will be no public bidding for the frequencies, and interested parties can just go ahead and apply for frequency rights, Salalima states.

If his recommendations were to be followed and implemented, he said that the Philippines will be looking at improvements on the telecoms services just after 6 months. 

Here's the big picture: currently, the Philippines only has 16,300 cell sites.

Globe's chief technology officer Gil Genio calls it an embarrassment, comparing it to Vietnam's 70,000 cell sites. Vietnam is a country of 95 million people with a land area of 332,698 square kilometers; the Philippines has 101 million individuals spread across 300,000 square kilometers.

Illustration from Globe presentation

The numbers have led to a situation where Globe is serving more subscribers per cell site than any other provider in Europe or Southeast Asia.

Illustration from Globe presentation

The faster that the telcos can secure the necessary paperwork to build new cell sites, the faster the services improve.

Health concerns

Along with the issues of red tape, lengthy permit applications and frequency hoarding, health concerns have also had a debilitating impact on the rollout of better internet. Some individuals are afraid that the radiation emitted by cell sites can cause harm. So when a telco approaches the homeowners association (HOA) for permission to build within the village, oftentimes it takes just one homeowner to complain and effectively put a stop to operations. 

Globe, in their presentation, showed a list of HOAs that have not been in approval of cell site proposals: 

The issue is significant enough that the summit invited a scientific organization that sets guidelines for what is healthy and unhealthy radiation exposure, the International Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Representing ICNIRP was Dr. Rodney Croft who said that the Philippines has been adhering to their guidelines since 1998 and that "telecommunications exposure is below what ICNIRP says is safe." 

According to Croft, cell site exposure only reaches about 1% of the limits set in the ICNIRP guidelines – way, way below the level at which it could cause any harm.

Croft also said that being close to a cell site is not harmful. In fact, the reverse is true, he said. The closer you are to a cell site, the less your phone has to work to establish and maintain a link to the tower, thereby lessening overall exposure. The expert added that the phone produces approximately 100 times more exposure than the cell sites. – Rappler.com 

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.

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