Broadband satellite access for all

Published March 17, 2021, 7:00 AM

by J. Albert Gamboa

A new era of high-speed connectivity is about to begin in the Philippines, which has long suffered from having the slowest internet services among Indo-Pacific nations.

Both the executive and legislative branches of government have given the green light to the entry of global satellite broadband players in the country’s telecommunications sector. Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order 127 allowing internet service providers (ISPs), telecom entities, value-added services operators, and broadcast companies to gain direct access to domestic or international satellite systems.

Implementation of the new national policy on inclusive access to satellite services falls under the mandate of the Department of Information and Communications (DICT) and its attached agency, the National Telecommunications Commission.  EO 127 tasks them to pursue policies that would secure the necessary orbital slots for Philippine satellites with the purpose of building and operating broadband facilities.

This development came after Senator Koko Pimentel, chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, delivered a privilege speech last month underscoring the importance of improving broadband connectivity in our country.

It may be recalled that Pimentel held a series of online meetings with executives of US-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), which plans to offer its Starlink satellite broadband services in the Philippines by the second half of 2021. SpaceX vice president Patricia Cooper said the country’s underserved and unserved rural communities will benefit immensely from Starlink.

Subsequently, Albay Representative Joey Salceda authored House Bill 7081 in Congress allowing small-town ISPs, schools, and civic organizations to use the Philippines’ satellite orbital slots to provide low-latency internet service in the countryside. HB 7081 or the Satellite Liberalization Act of 2021 has been approved by the House committee on information and communication technology (ICT) with the support of Party-list Representatives Ronnie Ong and Sharon Garin.

Ong believes that opening the local market to more ISPs would provide Filipino consumers with wider options and better internet service. He cited the potential entry of Starlink as a game-changer in the country’s ICT industry, noting that it is owned by the Tesla Group headed by Elon Musk — who was recently named the world’s richest person by Forbes magazine.

For its part, the DICT has started exploratory talks with SpaceX executives regarding the use of Starlink’s satellite broadband services. In a media interview, Undersecretary for Digital Philippines Emmanuel Rey Caintic disclosed that the initial discussions with SpaceX were satisfactory and he is now studying how Starlink could best be used by the DICT’s community WiFi internet initiatives.

Meanwhile, the Senate committee on public services chaired by Senator Grace Poe has proposed amendments to Commonwealth Act 146. Enacted when the Philippine archipelago was still under American rule with a national population of only 15 million, this 85-year-old law is otherwise known as the Public Service Act of 1936.

Poe sponsored the still unnumbered amending bill at the Senate plenary session last week. The proposed law aims for the dismantling of monopolies and the development of a more flexible rate-setting methodology. It also seeks to clear the ambiguity between the definitions of “public utility” and “public service.”

One of its provisions will address the constitutional issue of sovereignty by requiring the National Security Council to initiate a review of foreign investments that may result in the control of critical infrastructure in the Philippines. All these proposed amendments will help jumpstart the post-pandemic economy without the need for Charter change.

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