Sun Cellular Prepaid, which changed the mobile landscape two decades ago with unlimited data and calls, was folded into parent Smart Communications, giving subscribers access to a myriad of data buckets. It's this bottomless thirst for internet connectivity during the pandemic that is driving telcos to recalibrate and restrategize.
As PLDT-Smart and rival Globe Telecom prepare to stare down challenges from China Telecom-backed DITO Telecommunity and Converge, they must also address three of consumers foremost needs: reliability, speed, and accessibility, said Jonathan Ravelas, BDO Unibank chief investment strategist.
Sun was born out of the call and text boom of the early 2000s with a value proposition that challenged Globe and Smart, where calls and messaging were metered. Fast-forward to the mobile data era, Sun Prepaid subscribers will now have access to Smart's suite of data offerings, with tailor-fit offerings for students, office workers even small businessmen. That's what the market wants now.
"We can say that the phone call is dead," Ravelas told reportr. "The internet went to a whole new level because of the pandemic. It's not just for entertainment anymore."
People communicate using the internet from Viber to Zoom. Calls on landline and mobile signal are relegated to errands, like getting a text from the delivery guy or calling the telco's hotline to complain about spotty service.
"Because of the pandemic and work from home, the move to digitalization became faster. There's a need for much stronger broadband. That's big on their strategy. Who can offer fast internet to a certain number of people," he said.
There's a lesson in the throwback
In the late 1990s, people were beginning to discover the conveniences of carrying their mobile phones with them and ditching their pagers. Then came SMS, and everything from flirting to inspirational quotes to jokes became easier. Nokia was king.
Globe and Smart were not alone at that time, there was Bayantel, Piltel, Islacom and the daring new kid, Sun, which was later acquired by Smart's parent, PLDT. The market later consolidated to the just two players we have now.
With the new internet-driven market, the same thing is happening, new players are coming in, hoping to lure customers away from the duopoly. Ravelas said it will not be as easy as offering fast and unlimited service for both DITO and Converge.
People want one account that will give everything they need, and fast and reliable internet connection with reliable customer support, Ravelas said. Right now, some homes maintain two accounts, simply because neither is reliable 24/7 or because there has to be separate SIM cards across devices. The in-home experience must be addressed.
Does the data plan come with mesh? It's unrealistic for multiple internet users in a house to rely on just one WiFi router, especially when they're all running mid-morning conference calls.
"The key question is who will make it very easy," Ravelas said.
There will be birth pains
At the start of the SMS era, people complained of late or unsent text messages. For a time, Globe and Smart customers couldn't communicate outside their home carriers. When it opened up, there were interconnection fees.
The same thing is happening, with the birth pains amplified by the 5G rollout. How many of your friends and family switched to Converge and raved about fast internet only to complain weeks later? Of course, Globe and PLDT have had their share of connection issues.
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Still, the market is betting on telco. Converge's stock market debut is poised to be among the hottest of the year. DITO is backed by President Rodrigo Duterte's close businessman-friend, Dennis Uy and China Telecom.
"The key idea of so many players is to provide competition," Ravelas said. For Globe and Smart, the goal is to keep their subscribers loyal, he said.
Like how daily life is changing with the pandemic with little certainty, so too will the telco space.
"Magbabagao yan depende sa need. Gusto mo, parang lahat forever," he said.