THE criticism that has greeted the government’s provisional selection of a third telecommunications provider is, at least at this point, unjustified. Having waited years for the prospect of better internet communications service to become a reality, the country should give this latest development a chance before condemning it.
On Wednesday, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) declared the Mislatel Consortium as the country’s provisional third telco, as it was the one among the three bidders that passed the detailed evaluation after it completed all the requirements.
The Mislatel Consortium comprises four companies: The Mindanao Islamic Telephone Co. Inc; the Udenna Corporation, Chelsea Logistics Holdings Corp., and China Telecom. Davao-based Udenna and Chelsea Logistics are owned by entrepreneur Dennis Uy, a close supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte. China Telecom is a state-owned telecommunications company; it is the largest fixed-line and third-largest mobile services provider in China, with about 215 million mobile subscribers and 123 million broadband subscribers.
All of the criticism of the Mislatel selection has been based on two accusations: First, that the bidding and selection process was unfairly designed and managed to favor a key supporter of President Duterte (Dennis Uy reportedly contributed more than P30 million to Duterte’s 2016 election campaign); and second, that allowing a Chinese government-controlled telco access to the Philippine market presents grave risk to our national security.
Those concerns are not entirely baseless. Indeed, the bidding and selection process for a third telco or any other major government-initiated project should be transparent, aboveboard, and give an equally fair opportunity for every interested, qualified bidder. And the country’s telecommunications network is, indeed, critical strategic infrastructure that must be kept secure and safe from outside interference.
These are important considerations. There is nothing about the process so far, however, to indicate that it was not fair.
At least one of the rejected bidders, NOW Telecom, is pursuing its petition for an injunction against the selection process at the Court of Appeals, after having its case dismissed by the Manila Regional Trial Court. NOW has alleged that some of the terms of reference were not disclosed in public consultations, mainly the hefty security and appeals fees imposed on the bidders. Several other failed bidders have indicated they might also challenge the selection process in court, although one of them, the Philippine Telegraph & Telephone Corp. (PT&T), has given up its legal action, deciding that its case is moot now that a selection has been made.
Any proper appeal for review of the process by the courts should be welcomed. But unless there is clear evidence and a definitive ruling by a court that the process has been in some way irregular and unacceptable, it should be presumed to be valid and allowed to proceed.
The government and the prospective new service provider are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. It must also be made clear to them, however, that having raised the hopes and expectations of the country, their actions and progress toward making a third telco network a reality will be closely watched.
That means the new service provider will be expected to deliver the quality and reach of services they have promised. For the government’s part, it will be expected to do what it must to ensure that both the new and the existing telco providers have a level playing field and can compete fairly. One of the objectives it will be expected to meet, and soon, is to finally put an end to the gross inefficiency and wholesale corruption that exists at local levels of government, which has so far prevented telcos from expanding their tower networks.
The country has waited far too long for improved telecommunications services and better choices for consumers. While the current progress should not be impeded on mere presumptions of irregularity, it must not be allowed to become yet another in a long line of failed initiatives.