Senate approves 25-year franchise for Dito Telecommunity

Dennis Uy-led Dito Telecommunity, the country's 3rd telecommunications player, is one step closer to securing a 25-year franchise after getting the nod of senators.

Voting 17-2-1, the Senate approved on 3rd and final reading House Bill (HB) No. 7332 or the bill renewing for another 25 years the franchise of Mindanao Islamic Telephone Company (Mislatel), now known as Dito Telecommunity. Franchise bills come from the House of Representatives.

Only senators Risa Hontiveros and Francis Pangilinan from the minority bloc voted against the bill, while Senator Panfilo Lacson abstained.

Dito's original franchise under Mislatel is set to expire on April 24, 2023. If signed into law, HB No. 7332 would allow Dito to operate for 25 years after the franchise's expiration.

The telco kicked off its commercial rollout in 15 areas in the Visayas and Mindanao last March 8.

This is in compliance with Section 8 of the bill, which says the franchise would be deemed revoked if Dito fails to operate continuously for two years. 

Dito is 40% owned by Beijing-run China Telecom, in a joint venture with Uy's Udenna Corporation and Chelsea Logistics and Infrastructure Holdings Corporation. 

Critics have long feared that China Telecom would be used by Beijing to spy on the Philippine military, an allegation that Dito's executives have denied

Senators passed Dito's franchise in the same week that 220 Chinese vessels were seen surrounding Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the Kalayaan Island Group, which is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. 

Julian Felipe Reef is located in the West Philippine Sea, a part of the South China Sea that belongs to the Philippines but China is falsely claiming as its own. 

In explaining her no vote against Dito's franchise, Hontiveros said improving Wi-Fi speeds in the country should not come at the expense of national security.

“We should have a 4th, a 5th, and 6th major player. As many as market demand will support. However, this should not come at the expense of vital national security interests, and against a rival claimant in the West Philippine Sea that has proven time and time again that it will use any leverage it has to its advantage,” said Hontiveros. 

“China will no doubt try to reassure us with soothing words. But its aggression in the West Philippine Sea tells a different story,” she added.

Pangilinan shared the same sentiments, expressing his concerns against the cell sites that Dito and the Armed Forces of the Philippines agreed to put up inside military bases.

He also cited the presence of the Chinese militia in the West Philippine Sea. 

“The Chinese are already in front of our doorsteps. We cannot allow them to enter. For these reasons, Mr President, I regret to vote no to House Bill No. 7332,” said Pangilinan.

Not ready for Duterte's signature yet

Though the House already approved Dito’s franchise in 2020, the bill cannot be sent to Malacañang for President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature yet since senators introduced several amendments.

These include Hontiveros’ amendment requiring that frequencies assigned to Dito be subjected to review at “regular intervals.” The National Telecommunications Commission would have the authority to reallocate any redundant frequencies. 

Senators also passed Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon’s amendment that would require Dito to submit a report to the President and to Congress on disclosure of any data or information, assistance, support, or cooperation given to a foreign government and its instrumentalities. 

Should Dito fail to submit such a report, it would be a ground to revoke its franchise.

This means the two chambers of Congress would have to convene a bicameral conference committee to thresh out the conflicting provisions in the House and Senate versions. The House may also just opt to adopt the Senate-approved version of the Dito franchise bill. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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