The Philippines, given its archipelagic physical make-up of a sprawling 7,107 islands, brings new challenges to Internet deployment that will easily blanket the whole country.
Over the years, Internet deployment in one of the world's most connected country has been compared to neighboring countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea, but arguments were easily shrugged off given the difficult and complexity of deploying a fixed network to connect its thousands of islands.
For this reason, wireless Internet services have become an attractive alternative for Philippine telecommunication firms to further their offerings, from the high lands up north to the vast cities down under.
According to March 2010 data from Point Topic, a UK-based firm collating information on broadband communication services around the world, the Philippines has a broadband penetration rate of 1.6%, or around 1.7 million subscribers, most of which are subscribed to mobile 3G dongles.
The same report reveals that the Philippines has enjoyed a steady annual growth rate of 61.74% in 2009, second only to Moldova and followed by Tunisia.
CAPITALIZING ON DATA
Because of these glowing prospects, telecommunications providers in the Philippines have begun to leverage the steep growth of mobile and wireless broadband to augment their falling voice and SMS revenues.
"Our research in other markets suggests that focus on driving data services is typically the way to offset revenue decline," says Anubhuti Belgaonkar, lead analyst, Ovum.
Belgaonkar said the two biggest networks--Smart and Globe--have now shifted to mobile broadband as a focal point for revenue growth. "Given the low broadband penetration and the limited coverage of fixed broadband networks, mobile broadband appears to have immense growth potential in the Philippines," the firm added.
Currently, though, much of this growth in the mobile broadband space is associated to 3G deployments by the three major networks--including Sun Cellular--in the country.
4G, according to exclusive interviews of Computerworld Philippines with representatives from the three main providers in the Philippines, is merely seen to augment this growth, with the exception of Wi-Tribe, a new entrant in the broadband space, with its initial 4G offerings.
"Globe WiMAX was introduced by Globe more than a year ago to provide Filipino consumers with reliable, affordable, high-speed internet connection in areas not covered by traditional wired solutions," explains Emmanuel Estrada, network technologies strategy head, Globe Telecom. "Today WiMax contributes about 10 % of Globe's total broadband subscriber base."
Smart, meanwhile, takes this to a more concrete approach: "Our WiMax offering will complement existing Smart Bro products, specifically Canopy (a fixed wireless broadband setup where an antenna is installed at a high point to establish line of sight with the base station)," relates Joselito Bacoy, senior manager -- access network, planning and engineering, network and platforms services, Smart Communications, Inc.
Bacoy shares that compared with Canopy, WiMax is easier to market since it is basically a plug-and-play solution, and doesn't require a third-party contractor to install it at the subscriber's area.
Globe and Smart are divided on the issue of whether or not they will deploy mobile WiMax solutions in the future. "At the moment we are evaluating the need for doing full-mobility WiMax; however, we believe that 3G/HSPA currently meets all mobile broadband [requirements]," says Globe's Estrada.
Smart, meanwhile, admits that WiMax has not yet been proven as a potent alternative for delivering mobile broadband, but that it is part of their rollout plans.
A new player in the broadband services market emerged two years ago in the form of Wi-Tribe Telecoms, a subsidiary of Liberty Telecoms Holdings.
Formerly an integrator and operator of radio broadcasting stations, Liberty Telecoms has received fresh investment from a partnership between diversified conglomerate San Miguel Corporation (SMC) and Qatar-based telco operator Qatar Telecommunications (QTel) in 2009.
Despite the maturing mobile market in the Philippines, reports say SMC deemed it essential to spread out to high growth industries in order to gain a share of the lucrative telecoms market.
Currently, all three WiMax operators have coverage in key cities in the Philippines, with plans of branching out to other regions in the coming months.
Globe first launched its WiMax service in February 2009 in Cebu City. "Upon launch Globe had the first 2.5 Ghz WIMAX (802.16 e) broadband network in Southeast Asia," Estrada claimed, adding that they have already reached 100,000 subscribers in 60 provinces nationwide.
Smart's initial WiMax rollout, on the other hand, focused on the three key cities of Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao, installing more than 500 base stations in 2010 and aiming for 1,800 stations by the first quarter of this year.
"We are including other key cities in our next rollouts," Bacoy says. "The long-term plan is to duplicate the vastness of our 3G coverage."
Smart, moreover, has an infrastructure advantage over the other telcos, as it rides on the largest and highest capacity transport network through the digital fiber optic network (DFON) of its mother company PLDT (Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co.).
Wi-Tribe, meanwhile, is currently available only in Metro Manila, but Jay Reantaso, head of ATL, brand, and digital marketing of Wi-Tribe says nationwide roll-outs "are part of their roadmap."
Currently, Wi-Tribe offers the most competitive broadband packages for WiMax. They have an entry-level P998 plan with 1Mbps speed and a 6GB monthly usage allowance. The higher-level package, the P1998 plan, has 12GB allowance running on 2Mbps.
Wi-Tribe's monthly usage allowances are meant to manage limited network bandwidth. When a user exceeds his or her allowance, the speed is throttled down to 512kbps (first-level), 256kbps (second level) and so on. But users can buy additional bandwidth at a going rate of P200 per gigabyte.
Reantaso, however, clarifies that their method of network management is not meant to "cap" data, as have been purported by several groups recently. "[It is merely there] to ensure quality of service for all subscribers. We are, however, transparent to them, but we do not necessarily disconnect their service upon reaching the usage allowance," he explains.
Globe has no known network management method for its WiMax offerings, but it insisted that its limitations on other mobile Internet products are meant to improve overall quality of service. "Fair Use Policies have been used in all broadband markets and in most cases are actually mandated by telco regulators," Estrada relates.
Current WiMax service plans for Globe include a P795 plan delivering 512kbps speeds, and a P995 plan which can reach up to 1Mbps speeds.
Smart, for its part, has no known data capping measure for its mobile Internet offerings, except for its data plan for the Samsung Galaxy Tab. It has a P799 and P999 plan, also giving 512kbps and 1Mbps. A higher plan, P1995, allows surfing for up to 2Mbps.
With WiMax already in full--yet incomplete--implementation in the country, telcos are looking to the next wave of mobile Internet, to be powered by LTE (Long-Term Evolution).
To date, Globe and Smart have started their respective LTE tests in the country. "We began the trial of LTE technology early this year in partnership with NEC Corporation & ZTE. Following the lab tests in May at the Globe 3G LTE test bed at the Valero Technopark in Makati, we conducted field trials in Quezon City as part of Phase 1 of this project," Estrada shares.
Smart, meanwhile, has undergone pilot testing of its LTE network in Metro Manila and in Iloilo beginning November 2009. "While many of today's needs can be handled by HSPA networks, we anticipate an explosive demand for even greater bandwidth as more users connect to the web and richer content proliferates. LTE can deliver enhanced broadband capabilities and provide the capacity to support the expected demand for connectivity," notes Orlando Vea, chief wireless advisor, Smart.
Reantaso, meanwhile, said LTE being part of Wi-Tribe's roadmap is but a natural progression in most telecom firms around the world.
The problem with deploying LTE for now, according to telcos, is its commercial viability. "For LTE, there are many factors that will influence when Globe can make this technology available to customers. The first one is in terms of the market itself and the services it needs," Estrada says.
The other factor is the affordability of handsets supporting LTE handsets, which also need to support other wireless access technologies. "The unavailability of [affordable] terminals only means that LTE is not yet ready for mass deployment," Smart's Bacoy adds.