Some 30 months after first offering 5G services in parts of Manila, PLDT and Globe Telecom surprisingly revealed plans to slash capex in 2023, with both declining to release adoption and coverage figures since the launch.
Globe Telecom said in early December 2022 it planned to cut its capex budget this year by 30 per cent, with network spending peaking at about $1.9 billion in 2022.
Rival PLDT, grappling with a spending overrun of PHP48 billion ($869.7 million), changed course late in 2022 after earlier committing to keeping network investments elevated in 2023.
In a filing in late December 2022, PLDT and Smart Communications president and CEO Alfredo Panlilio said it planned to “reduce fresh capex starting in 2023. Thereafter, we expect capex to reduce steadily”.
Capex reached PHP89 billion in 2021, with its initial guidance for 2022 of PHP76 billion to PHP80 billion later increased to PHP85 billion.
The network budget cuts come with 5G coverage reaching only a fraction of the population.
Canalys research analyst Chiew Le Xuan told Mobile World Live (MWL) 5G deployment in the Philippines remains “abysmal as operators focused to protect their financial stability” rather than push rollouts, which are extremely costly.
A close look at past deployment numbers show a couple of anomalies.
PLDT ended September 2022 with 7,300 5G base stations, up marginally from 7,200 at the close of 2021. Its elevated capex in 2022 certainly wasn’t targeted at 5G upgrades. With 77,300 total base stations, up from 75,400 at end-2021, 5G sites represent less than 10 per cent of its total.
Panlilio revealed the reason for the anaemic growth of 5G service in late December 2022: compatible handsets were not affordable for most of the Philippines prepaid segment.
In Q3 2022, 97 cent of its 70.6 million subscribers were on prepaid plans, with ARPU at PHP114.
Panlilio said “tepid market adoption” was the cause of a deferment of its 5G rollout.
The price of 5G handsets in the country remains high with models only available in the mid high-end segment, Chiew said.
The ASP for 5G devices was $463 in Q3 2022, down 13 per cent year-on-year, Canalys data showed.
During the quarter, 5G handsets accounted for 14 per cent of overall smartphone shipments in the Philippines, compared with 24 per cent in Southeast Asia.
Chiew said the Philippines remains a value-driven market, with consumers very price-sensitive.
Meanwhile, Globe Telecom recently highlighted it more than doubled the number of locations across the Philippines with 5G service to 70 cities and towns.
It claimed 5G service is available across nearly all of the country’s three largest cities: Manila, Davao City and Cebu. Coverage also reached up to 97 per cent of the population in another ten cities.
It doesn’t give a cumulative figure for 5G or total sites.
GSMA Intelligence estimated Globe Telecom’s 5G network covered 35 per cent of the population at end-2022.
Globe Telecom also hasn’t disclosed 5G subscribers, but noted it logged more than 3 million devices on its network at end-September 2022, up from 2.7 million three months earlier. All but 2.5 million of its 87.9 million subscribers have prepaid service.
The operator told MWL since it doesn’t have specific 5G offers it doesn’t track ARPU by technology, making it impossible to gauge the impact of adoption on its overall figure.
Canalys expects things to change this year, with the prices of 5G-capable handsets forecast to decline further and vendors expected to add the technology to mid low-end portfolios.
The question is will a price drop in handsets be sufficient to encourage prepaid users to switch to faster 5G services? The threshold could be lowered enough to spur a shift to the next-generation technology in major cities where incomes are higher and network coverage broader.
But don’t expect uptake to soar until PLDT and Globe Telecom step-up investments and bring 5G coverage to the masses nationwide.
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