Thursday 4 June 2020

Philippines Dynamic Mobile Market has been Tipped for Improvement

There continues to be a great deal of investment in telecommunications infrastructure throughout the Philippines.  There is an emphasis on supporting high speed broadband access. The majority of fixed services are in urban areas but this market remains underdeveloped and fixed line penetration continues to show stagnant growth. The major reason for this is due to the dominance of the mobile segment and the rapid expansion of the mobile broadband market.

Over the past five to ten years and particularly more recently over the past two years there has been significant new data centre builds and more and more people are getting online and using cloud computing services, which is driving demand for data centre services.

During the last few years, the major operators have also been forced to cope with the pressures of slowing growth in traditional areas of the market and rising investment needs for new growth areas such as consumer broadband – both fixed line and mobile. In particular, there has been good progress in the rollout of optical fibre infrastructure.

The Philippines has seen a very rapid increase in mobile broadband penetration over the past five years driven by a rising level of wireless broadband users. Strong growth is predicted over the next five years to 2024, however at a slower and declining rate as the market further matures.

There are so far only two network operators, a duopoly of Smart and Globe in the Philippines with a third one: Dito Telecommunity to start in 2021.

Smart Communications by PLDT Inc, is the leading provider in the Philippines with more than 70 million customers on its three brands Smart, Sun Cellular and Talk 'n Text. It was the first to start 4G/LTE in 2012 in Manila and expanded it now to some other cities. For 4G/LTE Smart uses 700 MHz (28), 850 MHz (5), 1800 MHz (3) and 2100 MHz (1). MVNOs Talk 'n Text and Sun Cellular are under the Smart umbrella.

Smart Communications, was the first operator in the country to complete a video call on a 5G connection, showcasing interoperability in a multi-vendor environment. The call was made from the operator’s headquarters in Makati City to Clark Smart 5G City in the Clark Freeport Zone, using 5G radio and core equipment from Huawei (Makati) and Ericsson (Clark). Initial tests achieved downlink speeds of up to 700Mb/s using Huawei’s kit. The operator said it was the first 5G video call in the country.

Smart Communications plans to roll out additional 5G cell sites across the Makati central business district, paving the way for pilots in densely populated areas. To deliver these services, it is also upgrading its core and transport networks, which includes using fibre backhaul to connect the network’s cell sites nationwide.

Globe has been slowly gaining on the market leader Smart. It is 1/2 owned by SingTel from Singapore and has more than 40 million customers. But most Filipinos hold SIM cards of both operators. Globe sometimes has better data rates, because its cells are less congested. 4G/LTE is available mostly in city areas so far: 4G/LTE coverage list on 700 MHz (28), 1800 MHz (3), 2500 MHz (41/TDD-LTE) and 2600 MHz (7).

The Philippines has long been notorious for having very slow connectivity and patchy coverage.
2G covers all inhabited islands but is practically useless for data transmission (even for WhatsApp) because of congestion. On 3G you only get data speeds comparably to other southeast Asian countries in Manila and a few provincial capitals. Generally the 3G coverage is somewhat patchy and speeds are often quite poor.  4G/LTE coverage isn't nationwide and mostly exists in greater urban areas so far. In fact, Open Signal writes that 4G is only available to 72.4% of the country. Both Globe and Smart had pledged to cover 95% of population with 4G/LTE by the end of 2018.

So has the situation improved? Open Signal have analyzed the mobile network experience of the Philippines' two national operators in the 90 days starting November 1, 2019, both at a national level and across 25 provinces, to see how Globe and Smart measure up.

As you can see Smart dominated the awards. The PLDT-owned operator won six out of seven national awards outright and drew for Latency Experience. Globe also made some impressive improvements in other areas, particularly Video Experience, where it increased its score by 30.6% from a previous report.

Both operators also achieved some important milestones. Smart became the first Filipino operator to pass the 80% 4G Availability mark nationwide with Globe only a few percentage points behind it. Smart also dominated 4G Availability at a regional level winning 12 awards and drawing with Globe in 12 other provinces.

Therefore despite having just two mobile operators, the Philippines’ mobile market continues to be fairly dynamic and we have seen improvements to both operator networks. But this two-operator scenario is about to change. Dito Telecommunity, a third national player, plans a technical launch in July 2020. Dito must have 37% coverage of the population in its first year with an average speed of 27 Mbps. The company says it will have at least 1,600 cell sites deployed by the end of July. Dito’s full commercial launch is now slated for March 2021. Ultimately, the operator is required under its license terms to have a network that covers 84% of the population with speeds of at least 55 Mbps.

Regarding the current scenario the incumbent operators in the Philippines have taken several initiatives to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and provide support to their customers, both on new offers and services and also on network coverage.

For its fiber broadband subscribers, Smart offered free ‘speed boost’, providing a minimum Internet connection speed of 25 Mbps. They also offered free access to official websites.

Moreover, to equip COVID-19 medical front-liners with reliable data connectivity, Smart is providing free, fast, and 24/7 Smart Wi-Fi to newly-activated COVID-19 facilities.

Globe Telecom has partnered with the Philippine Red Cross to power the ‘RC143’ mobile app. RC143 is a contact tracing mobile app created by Red Cross to help medical frontliners identify possible patients, as well as help users track their levels of exposure to the virus.

The RC143 navigational tool uses Bluetooth and GPS to trace contact events between users. Through the app’s contact tracing feature, users can assess their risk level of contracting the virus as well as get in touch with Red Cross representatives to know more about COVID-19 and for medical assistance.

The app also has a feature that helps users navigate away from high-risk areas, guided by constant monitoring by Red Cross personnel and Artificial Intelligence (AI). This feature mainly targets Filipinos who need to leave their homes for work or for other necessities such as buying food.

Mobile users in the Philippines can download the RC143 app free of charge at the Google Play Store. The app is currently only available for Android users (version 6.0 and above) and will be made available for iOS soon.

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