POSTSCRIPT / August 23, 2022 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Telcos must adjust to alien cyber giant?

The government must level the playing field in the competition for service superiority between a foreign technological Goliath challenging the Davids who have pioneered in the local broadband internet market.

Existing telecom companies face competition from Starlink Internet Services Philippines Inc. Photo: Shutterstock

A potentially lopsided fight looms between existing telecom companies that founded the country’s internet service and Starlink Internet Services Philippines Inc., a Space-X subsidiary of top billionaire Elon Musk (net worth was reported at $236 billion in July 2022).

Starlink looks forward to lifting the country’s internet service with Musk’s Space-X constellation of low-orbit satellites whose efficiency he tries to insulate from the glitches that usually plague communications operations on the ground.

We await the government’s laying down policies to prevent a virtual monopoly from emerging and to promote healthy co-existence among the alien big player (with unproven claims, according to the US Federal Communications Commission), the local telcos, and the consuming public.

That internet users will keep demanding superior service is to be expected, especially in a society where those who wield political and economic power tend to want more while neglecting public welfare.

We expect the government to listen very carefully and treat fairly all parties submitting applications and proposals on the internet business. This sector is crucial to the free flow of truthful information affecting nearly 100 million Filipinos whose computers and smartphones seem to be always engaged.

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It is disturbing to hear that in this country where red tape ties up practically all dealings with the government, it took an unheard-of 30 minutes for the National Telecommunications Commission to process and grant a license to Elon Musk’s Starlink internet firm.

The NTC’s approval last May 27 of Starlink’s VAS (value-added service) license came faster than the time it takes an Elon Musk satellite to circle the globe.

When Starlink announced it would open shop in the Philippines, the news created quite a stir in the telco community. No less than the regulator NTC and the Department of Information and Communications Technology (then under acting Secretary Manny Caintic) rolled out the royal carpet.

Per NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba, “The NTC is steadfast in helping ensure that roll-out of Starlink’s internet access services will be done expeditiously and professionally.”

So quick was NTC’s action that the VAS license was handed over to Starlink in a record time of half an hour, to the consternation of other, and local at that, applicants.

A case in point is Bangsamoro Telecommunications Inc. whose application, languishing at the NTC for months, was first rejected, then reportedly given a run-around by the agency’s director for regulations, until a complaint was lodged on behalf of BTI with Commissioner  Cordoba.

In awe and appreciation, Starlink’s local counsel declared: “We would like to thank the NTC for issuing Starlink’s VAS license 30 minutes after we submitted our application… This shows the government’s seriousness in addressing the connectivity needs of our countrymen in unserved and underserved areas.”

Newly-installed DICT Secretary Ivan John Uy was just as enthusiastic. He announced that the Starlink network would provide connectivity in remote places via the Space-X kit, a portable and easy-to-install and deploy package for far-flung areas.

Uy said they were looking at the government to fully paying the local roll-out of the satellite connectivity. The Starlink kit will be offered for $599 per user while the monthly service fee will be $110, according to Space-X.

This reminded us that the government had provided the P12.1 billion funding for the “Free WiFi for All” project under RA 10929 from 2015 to 2021, targeted at 34,442 remote sites – but of which only 2,890 were operational by mid-April 2022.

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Musk has announced on Twitter that Starlink satellite broadband internet is available in 36 countries. However, it is not available in China, and SpaceX does not plan to apply for an operating license there, according to Chinese state media.

Starlink said its satellite internet is available in parts of the US and Canada to people who live between 44 and 53 degrees latitude. It plans to be available worldwide by the end of 2022.

Secretary Uy said at a Senate hearing last May that Starlink service in the country will initially cover only northern Luzon.

“It will not reach the middle and southern part of the Philippines where we badly need this satellite connectivity. So it may take a bit longer before this service can be availed of – until they can launch additional satellites to cover Central and Southern Philippines,” he said in Taglish.

Uy also said: “We know that a lot of areas in the Philippines are not covered by telcos because of the so-called missionary routes. ‘Missionary routes’ refers to areas where telcos will lose revenues if they set up a facility there.

“And the reason for this is that there are very few users and they are not heavy users. So they (the telcos) would lose money if they lay down fiber optic cables or submarine cables.”

Starlink’s satellite technology, he said, would be an “ideal” tool to address this problem:

“Because this is a low Earth orbit satellite network, a lot of satellites would have to be deployed. It looks like Starlink plans to deploy a total of 40,000 satellites, and about 2,000 satellites have been deployed. And they will add some more satellites.”

He did not say when those thousands of additional satellites would start orbiting. He just said that Starlink would “offer” a high-speed, low-latency satellite internet service with download speeds reaching 100-200 megabits per second (Mbps), a claim the few remote Starlink users in the US are debunking, and the FCC is disputing.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 23, 2022)

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