The Philippines were one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to embrace wireless 3G or UMTS technology for internet access. Blessed (or punished) with more than 7.000 islands, digging and laying down landlines was naturally a big endeavor for this developing country.
So all the way until the mid 90’s the country was one of the laggards in regards to internet access, with Dial-up speeds and slow dedicated lines ruling the access options. Due to the high penetration rates of mobile phones, business leaders soon recognized the great potential for mobile phone based or wireless internet options:
So when 3G/UMTS as an extension of then slower GPRS for GSM came along, the Philippines were at the forefront of its adoption.
3G/UMTS services in the Philippines
Other Asian countries were relatively slow in adapting 3G/UMTS services, as they mainly had already an abundance of access options, like Dial-up, Cable, ISDN, DSL or even WiFi-point-based solutions.
In the Philippines, incumbent telecommunications provider Globe Telecom first didn’t see 3G/UMTS as an interesting service, more like a thread to existing services; also a pricey one – as UMTS licenses in Europe and other countries were auctioned off for exorbitant prices in the last years of the internet bubble. So they were slow to roll-out an UMTS network or upgrade their existing mobile network from GPRS to 3G or even 3.5G capacity.
Thankfully another provider jumped into the gap left by Globe, rolled out and extended their 3G network and these days is years ahead compared to Globe Telecom, except maybe in the Metro Manila areas. This provider is Smart.
There are some minor mobile providers in the Philippines like Sun Cellular or TM, but the first only offers 3G services in the Manila area, the latter is a mere budget-reseller of Globe services without the internet access option.
So the services to look out for – are Smart Bro/Buddy and Globe Tattoo (previously called Visibility).
Both, Globe and Smart, offer time-based internet access service on a prepaid basis, as that’s is the main form of mobile contract here in the Philippines. There are volume-based alternatives also, but they are currently not competitive. You can either access the internet with your mobile phone or use one the USB sticks/modems provided by the providers.
Those starter packages costs anything between 1.990 to 3.500 Pesos currently.
My advice – hands off!
Avoid buying the complete starter package of either Globe or Smart – as these USB dongles are sim-locked to the respective provider. They are a useless investment, if the service doesn’t work in your area or if you are planning to change your provider. Also they are expensive.
Better buy an independent UMTS PC Card (like the unlocked Sierra Wireless card pictured to the right) or use a Netbook like the Acer One with UMTS option instead. They are not locked to any provider and you can simply slide in the SIM card of your preferred access option. The standard prepaid SIM cards of Smart or Globe go for as low as 40 Pesos – yes, sometimes they are even given away for free in promotions of big shopping malls, like SM Mall, Ayala, Robinson Mall or else.
Thus you are more independent and can change the provider ‘on the fly’, if one service is down in your area.
So what is the difference between Smart and Globe?
Driving with a Tricycle more than 4.000 kilometers around the whole country over the last 2 months – and accessing the internet in every town I stayed over night – here are my first-hand experiences regarding Smart Bro and Globe Tattoo:
- Prepaid Offers: Globe offers 15 minutes for 5 Pesos, Smart offers 30 minutes for 10 Pesos. That looks on first view like a win for Globe, due to the lower time unit – but wait a minute! If you get disconnected – what can easily happen in a lower coverage area – you will pay another 5 Pesos again, even if you didn’t consume your 15 minutes yet. With Smart you can disconnect/reconnect as often as you please within your 30 minute period. It’s basically a draw – but something to consider.
- Speeds: Both providers offer similar speeds on paper, with Smart having the upper hand in reality. Both start with simple 3G, which is theoretically up to 384 kbps bandwidth. An extension to that is HSDPA, which can go as high as 3.6 Mbps of bandwidth, although Smart offers maximum 2 Mbps. There is of course a huge difference between theory and reality. In reality I never had higher download speeds than 90 kbps with Smart and 40-50 kbps with Globe – which doesn’t sound like a lot, but is still good enough to surf the web, use Skype for telephony and video chat, check out YouTube Videos and even download the odd larger patch or software.
- Coverage: During the trip around the country I found the coverage of Globe Tattoo mediocre at best, mostly it wasn’t even available in bigger towns – not even GPRS speeds. Exceptions are the island of Luzon and the Metro Manila area. There are also some university towns that are covered by Globe Tattoo as well, but they are few and far between. So probably one reason why Globe changed the name to Tattoo was, that their Globe Visibility service was actually a ‘Globe Invisibility service’.
- Compare that with the coverage of Smart Bro, which is literally available anywhere – even in/on smaller cities and islands. The only exceptions were Samar and Leyte, which has the least developed 3G internet infrastructure. Tacloban and Ormoc on Leyte were the few exceptions here, the rest of the 2 islands had maximum GPRS speeds available. Gloibe was literally non-existant. Smart also offers generally country-wide higher speeds like HSDPA, an extension to the standard 3G speeds, which are offered by Globe only around Makati and Ermita in Manila.
- Reliability: The reliability of both services is pretty good – when you have coverage. There are some disconnects from time to time – but simply reconnect and the data flows again. Also you can experience some longer outages from time to time. Here again I had more troubles with Globe than with Smart. With Globe Tattoo I also had issues using POP3 mail, which could only be received, but not sent. Also the upload speeds are where SmartBro really shines – you can upload almost as fast as download – which is important, if you use Online Services like Flickr.com or Dropbox to backup your pictures or personal files. Globe is on the losing end in that regard again.
I’m currently sitting here on Bantayan Island – a small island about 10km away from Cebu island – and having 4 bars out of 5 standard 3G speed with Smart Bro here. Globe Tattoo isn’t even showing any faster speed than plain GPRS connection, that is somewhere in the 8-12 kbps range, similar to analogue modem dial-up.
If you are roaming the country, there is only one clear winner here – it’s SmartBro!
It’s virtually available anywhere, the speeds are decent and the realiability is acceptable. The world of Globe is mainly restricted to the Metro Manila area.
I wonder if they still think, that the world is flat?
In Manila they are even under more threads also; with new rivals like Sun Cellular joining the 3G competition. But hey – more competition, good for the consumer, right?
If you stay mainly in one area – it doesn’t hurt to try out both. Maybe even Sun Cellular is offering 3G services in your area!
So what to do? Don’t fall for their sim-locked Starter Kits! Get a UMTS Card for your PC, use a Netbook with UMTS slot or simply your 3G-ready phone. Just buy a prepaid SIM card, which can go as low as 40 Pesos for Smart, Globe or Sun in most locations. Try out which service works most reliable in your area. Use the other SIM card as a backup service, in case your main provider is experiencing an outage.
This way, you have the best of all worlds. Agree or disagree – which one works better for you? Are there even better mobile internet options? Please share your experiences here!
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