PLDT wireless subsidiary Smart Communications, Inc. (Smart) is stepping up its network improvement program this year and increasing its 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) coverage to include a total of 785 municipalities by the end of 2017, in line with its commitment to the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).

This is about half of the target indicated in the three-year network roll-out plan that PLDT submitted to NTC last year, where it said that Smart is focusing on accelerating its LTE deployment and will make it progressively available to users in 1,551 cities and municipalities across the country by the end of 2018.

For 2017, Smart targets to roll-out 2,165 sites with LTE in low spectrum bands and 3,568 sites in high spectrum bands, according to Joachim Horn, chief technology and information advisor for PLDT and Smart.

“We will also continue to invest in our 2G and 3G networks to meet customer demand and ensure best customer experience,” he added.

The backbone of the PLDT group’s digital pivot, this comprehensive network modernization and expansion program features re-equipping cell sites to use low-frequency bands such as 700 MHz and 850 MHz to improve LTE and 3G services, as these frequency bands travel farther than high-frequency bands and provide better coverage, including indoors.

The rollout also includes deploying high-frequency bands like 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz, to increase the capacity of each Smart cell site to handle more calls, texts, and ever-increasing mobile data traffic.

Smart’s network rollout took a big bulk of parent company PLDT’s ramped-up capital expenditure program of P42.8 billion for 2016, which included the utilization of the new frequencies freed up with the acquisition of San Miguel Corporation’s telco assets.

PLDT chair and CEO Manuel V. Pangilinan has announced a total capital expenditure of P46 billion this year, inclusive of carry-overs from last year.

“We are improving customer experience through better network services and by offering progressively more relevant and targeted products and services,” Pangilinan said.

Network improvements now bearing fruit

These investments in network improvement have been paying off, Horn noted. Last year, Smart completed the roll-out of enhanced 4G and 3G coverage using low-band frequencies in Boracay and Metro Davao, where users are now reporting improved mobile internet experience.

Initial results are also beginning to show in Metro Manila and Metro Cebu, where network upgrades are still ongoing and are expected to be finished in the following months. Initial tests in Metro Cebu, for instance, have produced average LTE download speeds of 20 Mbps and average 3G download rates of 6 Mbps where the new cell site facilities have been installed. In Rizal, the average download rates in the areas where cell sites have been upgraded are 23.3 Mbps for LTE.

LTE delivers superior experience for users, particularly for data. It can also be quickly upgraded to LTE-A, which can provide even faster speeds and greater capacity to subscribers who are using LTE SIMs on LTE-capable handsets.

Smart began rolling out its LTE-A service in April 2016 in preparation for the rise of bandwidth-heavy services such as video streaming and gaming. Initially deployed in Boracay, Smart’s LTE-A service delivers peak speeds of more than 100 Mbps to users with LTE-A capable smartphones. Such download rates are achieved using a capability of LTE-A called “carrier aggregation” which provides subscribers with access to the combined capacity of two or more frequency bands.

“The roll out of our LTE network is strategic not only because it gives an immediate boost to internet speeds and reliability, but also because this lays the foundation for further improvements,” said Horn.

“As more LTE-A capable handsets become available, we can turn on the carrier aggregation feature of LTE and quickly raise internet speeds even more. We are also conducting our LTE roll out in ways that prepare us for the arrival of 5G, which is just three years away,” Horn added.

“We are asking for people’s patience and understanding as we are upgrading in our network facilities. We are taking all possible steps to minimize the impact on our subscribers. Our commitment to all our subscribers is that they will enjoy progressively better mobile data services in the next few months, particularly for those using LTE devices,” said Horn.

Smart is now among a handful of leading operators actively working on ultra-high speed wireless data capacity in anticipation of demand for gigabit speeds.

These breakthroughs have successfully demonstrated that the very high speeds demanded by the advent of the ‘Gigabit Society’ can be supported using LTE technology, and with the spectrum available to PLDT and Smart.

“This is a key part of our efforts to transform the PLDT and Smart network into the country’s most future-ready data infrastructure delivering a wide range of gigabit digital solutions,” Pangilinan said.

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