Mountains labored, bringing forth a mouse
Earlier this month, the President smilingly handed over a certificate of accreditation to Dennis Uy, the present dispensation’s Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. and Roberto Benedicto rolled into one. The certificate designated Uy’s Dito Telecommunity Corp. (formerly Mislatel) as the nation’s third telecoms player. The President had already declared that Mislatel would be the country’s third telecoms player on the eve of Xi Jinping’s November 2018 state visit to the Philippines.
Dito, of course, has as its defining feature a partnership between Uy and China Telecom, signed during the second Belt and Road Summit in Beijing in April after being initially announced in November 2018, which in turn was born of the President’s announcement in December 2017 that China Telecom would be the third telecom player.
Note that what the President originally had in mind was China Telecom being the new player, inspired by a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2017. Instead, at the end of the road, China Telecom ended up as a partner in a consortium headed by Dennis Uy — a partnership reminiscent of the Sys and the State Grid Corp. of China (Transco, people all too quickly have forgotten, made a brief, failed bid in 2017 to be China Telecom’s partner for the third telecom scheme).
What happened during this period was the failure of two schemes to make China Telecom the exclusive third player. The first scheme was to replace the 1987 Constitution, either through a constituent assembly — which never got off the ground because the President took his sweet time to appoint a commission to propose a new draft; by the time it was constituted and excreted a draft, the House had gotten impatient and was busy on its own; meanwhile, the constitutional commission’s efforts proved so unwieldy, and possibly eccentric, that lawmakers disdained to take them seriously — or by just proclaiming a revolutionary government, an idea that proved more of a trial balloon on the part of the lunatic fringe in the ruling coalition.
Along came a second innovative proposal, which was to amend the Public Service Act, which would have allowed telecoms to be delisted as mandatorily being majority-owned or even partially owned by Filipinos. By late 2018, the scheme was already being described as dead in the water; back at the end of May, Sen. Grace Poe noted the bill was awaiting approval on second reading in the Senate. But the intervention of the President’s economic team, to pass the increase in the excise tax on cigarettes during the last Congress’ lame-duck session, meant no attention could be given to the bill unless the President certified it as urgent. That certification wasn’t forthcoming. Poe said they’d take up the measure in the forthcoming Congress, but it would have to start the process over, and she intended to propose “safeguards” concerning the entry of foreign investors—essentially marking the bill for a quick death in the next Congress.
The long and short of it is that despite the President’s popularity, and his ruling coalition being a political behemoth, the political beast he’s master of is a picky beast of burden. It can move, in fits and starts, toward any goal that promises more funds for a thirsty ruling majority (read: taxes), but between the opposition of the older telecoms duopoly and disgruntled groups that attempted to bid for a telecoms franchise only to become extras in a predetermined game, it’s less liable to be obedient—not least because the administration has failed to accomplish the changes, either to the Constitution or our laws. The Senate is in the way; so is public opinion; so, it seems, is most of the ruling money.
So China Telecom is in, adding telecoms to the growing portfolio of Beijing that already included our national grid even before the present dispensation; more to the point, it required a strategy similar to the entry of China into power distribution to get its foot in the telecoms door. It is, then, the exercise of influence and the cultivation of support no different from previous administrations, and so, business as usual—when it had begun as the bright, shiny promise of a new era in investments.
Meanwhile, little has been heard from TierOne, the Davao-based telecoms company that partnered with that respected name in Chinese state-sponsored investments, ZTE, to build 50,000 cell towers in Mindanao.