Senate approves new 25-year franchises for Smart Communications, GMA-7

PLDT and Smart logos are seen on PLDT's building in Makati City. iNTERAKSYON.COM FILE means BUSINESS

MANILA – Voting 15 affirmative votes, two negative votes and no abstention, the Senate on Monday approved on third and final reading the bill seeking renewal, under House Bill No. 4637, of the 25-year franchise of Smart Communications Inc.

The Senate also approved with 17 affirmative votes, no negative vote and zero abstention, the license of Republic Broadcasting System Inc., currently known as Global Media Arts (GMA) Network Inc., for another 25 years, under House Bill No. 4631.

Senator Risa Hontiveros and Panfilo Lacson voted against House Bill No. 4637, granting Smart a franchise to “establish, install, maintain, lease and operate integrated telecommunications/computer/electronic services, and stations throughout the country for public, domestic and international telecommunications.” 

In explaining his vote, Lacson maintained that Smart should be publicly listed two years after they approve its franchise, like what they did to Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company.

“I am casting a negative vote Mr. President, and I will explain very briefly. Even though I lost in my proposed amendments in the votation, but still I maintained that grantee PLDT is different from grantee SMART, and therefore what PLDT is required to do -- that is to list publicly within two years -- should also be required of Smart when we renew their franchise,” Lacson said.

In House Bill No. 4361, the Senate approved the 25-year franchise of GMA to “construct, install, establish, operate, and maintain radio and television broadcasting stations nationwide, including digital television systems through microwave, satellite or any new technologies in television and radio systems.”

Senator Grace Poe, chairperson of the Committee on Public Services, sponsored the bills.

Amendments to franchise

Poe said that apart from extending Smart’s franchise, HBN 4637 introduced important amendments that would better protect the interest of telecom users.

“It is expedient for the legislature to roll over Smart’s franchise by simply extending it. But we know that obsolescence does not only plague technology but regulatory frameworks as well,” Poe had said in her sponsorship speech.

The first amendment is the deletion of the term “co-use” in the application of the franchise so that “this seemingly innocuous word cannot be invoked in employing anti-competition practices.”

The bill also compels Smart to install facilities and bring under its coverage areas not yet served, specifically calamity-prone ones, where the presence of telecommunication services can help in times of disaster.

“We are requiring it to upgrade and program its entire infrastructure to be on standby to send out free mobile disaster alerts as mandated by Republic Act No. 10639,” she said.

The bill also retained the requirement for congressional consent “on the sale, lease, transfer, usufruct or assignment of the franchise."

Free PSAs, closed captioning

Meanwhile, Poe said that aside from extending the GMA’s franchise, HBN 4631 requires the TV network to provide free public service time to the government, through the broadcasting stations or facilities, to relay important public announcements and warnings as needed or required by law.

The network must also provide sound and balanced programming, promote public participation, assist in the functions of public information and education as well as promote audience sensibility and empowerment through closed captioning, the proposed measure said.

According to RA 10905 or the Closed Caption Law, “closed captioning” is the method of “subtitling television programs by coding statements as vertical data signal that are decoded at the receiver and superimposed at the bottom of the television screen.”

The United States Federal Communications Commission defined closed captioning as a method of displaying “the audio portion of a television program as text on the TV screen, providing a critical link to news, entertainment and information for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.”

Poe noted that the GMA Network has continued with and has proportionately increased its economic, cultural and social contributions to the nation, and that it “is consistently one of the nation’s top corporate taxpayers.”