In the face of difficulties poised by the COVID-19 lockdowns, the Philippines' leading integrated telco PLDT and its wireless arm Smart Communications, Inc. (Smart) further expanded the reach and capacity of its LTE network, enabling the network to serve the increased data demands of the 'new normal.' To date, 99% of Smart's sites nationwide are already on LTE.
"Life under lockdown has pushed the rapid adoption of online and digital services. It is now more than evident how vital digital transformation has become for Filipinos in coping with the present crisis," said Smart Communications President and CEO and PLDT Chief Revenue Officer Alfredo S. Panlilio.
"COVID shifted our already rapidly-evolving connectivity landscape into overdrive and reshaped how we look at our business. In response to the surge of demand for connectivity and data, the PLDT-Smart network expansion went full throttle this year. It was not easy, but we managed to expand the reach and capacity of our fixed and wireless networks across the country despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic," Panlilio added.
Spike in usage
To address the increased level of data usage, which began during the lockdown, Smart boosted the capacity of its LTE network throughout the country by reallocating its assigned 1800 MHz frequencies from 2G to 4G/LTE. As a result, more than 3,700 base stations of Smart have also been providing additional capacity for its LTE network.
This year, in addition to increasing the number of base stations and cell sites on its network, Smart also rolled out its LTE network to far-flung areas, including Pag-Asa Island in the municipality of Kalayaan in the West Philippine Sea -- the country's most remote cell site.
Smart has also upgraded to LTE all of its existing cell sites in the Visayas, after firing up its cell site in Barangay Tucdao in Kawayan, a fifth-class municipality in the island province of Biliran.
Smart has also ramped-up its LTE rollout across Luzon and in Mindanao, including 4th and 5th class municipalities in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
Serving new digital consumers in non-Metro areas
This rollout outside of Metro Manila and urban areas has allowed Smart to serve the needs of more customers. According to Google's latest study e-Conomy SEA 2020, across Southeast Asia, around one in every three digital service consumers tried out a service for the first time this year due to the COVID-19. In the Philippines, more than half (54%) of these new digital consumers are from non-Metro areas. These digital services include e-commerce and grocery deliveries, online learning, music and video streaming, and video conferencing and other work-from-home solutions.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us to unprecedented situations. The new norm has accelerated the adoption of e-commerce. More companies are going digital. It has changed the way people use and consume content from the Internet, as well as reshaped the locations where they use it. Now more than ever, telecommunications has become even more relevant," said Mario G. Tamayo, SVP for Network Planning and Engineering at PLDT-Smart.
"This year, we managed to expand our reach and capacity, both on the fixed and wireless networks across the country to cater to the increasing customer demand amid the pandemic. This was made possible because of the PLDT Group's massive investment in capital expenditures in the past five years," Tamayo added.
In 2020, PLDT and Smart further accelerated the rollout of their fixed and wireless networks to deliver better customer service. PLDT's fiber infrastructure, the most extensive in the country, is now at more than 422,000 kilometers as of November.
This fiber infrastructure supports Smart's mobile network, which now covers 96% of the population and is available in 95% of the country's cities and municipalities. As of November, Smart has also increased the number of its base stations to over 58,000, while also rolling out more than 300 additional 5G base stations as it accelerates its 5G commercial services nationwide.
The PLDT Group's investments in capital expenditures have totaled Php 260 billion from 2015 to 2019. PLDT’s expansion efforts and investments helped the Group cope with sustained growth in data traffic when COVID-19 community quarantines commenced in March. PLDT is anticipating capex of at least P70 billion for 2020. “With the surge in demand for data, we are prepared to invest between Php 88 billion and Php 92 billion [in 2021] to meet the requirements of all our mobile and fixed line customers. Providing good customer experience remains to be our 'North Star', as we aim to elevate PLDT and Smart to the level of global operators,” Panlilio said.