One of the telecom world's most durable duopolies faces its biggest challenge this year when China Telecom-backed Dito Telecommunity debuts in the Philippines.
The new company will go head-to-head with Globe Telecom, 47%-owned by Singtel, and Smart Communications, the mobile arm of fixed-line giant PLDT.
The two have dominated the market for the past two decades, having seen off several small challengers, including Mislatel, the regional mobile operator acquired by China Telecom and its partners last April.
Dito has already been caught in a series of spats, the latest over whether it is able to meet its rollout timetable.
After a local politician raised doubts, Dito execs met with Information and Communications Secretary Gregorio Honasan on Wednesday to assure him they would start providing 4G services by July, the Philippines Star reports.
Another flap has been over the China Telecom-backed firm being given permission to build cell towers on military bases, a right also given the other operators.
It's to be expected in a market shared between two powerful local conglomerates.
According to the latest filings, Globe has 58% of the total customer base with 97.4 million subs and Smart the remainder with 70.7 million.
Despite their long dominance, they present a soft target for any competitor able to offer a decent mobile broadband service: The Philippines ranks 110th with an average downlink speed of 16.76 Mbit/s in the latest Speedtest global index (China ranks fifth, Hong Kong 44th).
Globe and Smart invested just over 100 billion Philippine peso (US$1.96 billion) between them in 2018 and planned to increase that by about 40% last year as the new rival geared up to launch. Dito has committed to investing up to PHP279 billion ($5.48 billion) during the first five years, promising an average 27 Mbit/s in its first year and 55 Mbit/s by year five.
Yet Dito's biggest advantage may not be China Telecom's technical heft and deep pockets, but the friendship between its boss Dennis Uy and President Duterte.
Through his companies Udenna Corp. and Chelsea Logistics, Uy owns 60% of Dito. It was after Duterte invited China Premier Li Keqiang to invest in the Philippines mobile market that China Telecom showed up in Manila.
After Dito bid won the licence tender, Duterte called on it to break the Globe-Smart duopoly. Lately, the populist leader has been on a tear against the big local firms behind the two telcos: He's ordered a review of the Manila water monopoly held by Ayala, Globe's biggest local investor; and a review of the mass transit contract held by a PLDT affiliate.
"The Philippines has been gravely fooled by the rich people in the Philippines. Just like Ayala and [PLDT CEO] Pangilinan who own Globe and Smart," Duterte reportedly said in a speech last week.
Dito's arrival, and the president's encouragement, is already making a visible impact on incumbents.
PLDT's Pangilinan is planning to sell off some property assets to fund network expansion this year, including a limited 5G rollout. He says the company will top last year's PHP78.4 billion ($1.54 billion) investment, the highest ever to date.
For China Telecom this is also a big play -- its first offshore mobile venture and its highest profile investment to date. Rival China Mobile has already invested in operators in Pakistan and Thailand. This won't be the last time we see a Chinese operator step beyond its own borders.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading