Slow, congested, expensive’ (Internet, like the Metro Manila traffic)

In describing the current state of internet service in the country during an important forum in Quezon City this week, acting chief of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) Eliseo Rio, Jr. likened the service to the maddening traffic in Metro Manila: “It is slow, congested and expensive.

Residents of  the metropolis, who have borne helplessly the government’s cluelessness on the solution to the traffic problem, would quickly grasp what Rio was driving at. The problems dogging the internet service are severe. The situation is as bad as the traffic in the capital.

With this simple stroke, OIC Rio was able to visualize for everyone how bad the internet service was, how urgent the situation, how frustrated and angry internet users had become, and why the government now was sparing no effort and brooking no obstacle to resolve the situation. The government has come up with the National Broadband Plan – not a band-aid solution, but a permanent and a generally beneficial solution to the shameful state of our internet service.

To his credit, Rio did not water down the many reasons for the service failure. He identified the main roadblocks to a speedy solution to the problem and enumerated the key resources that we must have in order to achieve a more speedy and efficient internet service.

We cannot agree more with this new approach:
The problems should be stated bluntly and harshly because any moderation of the message could mean the solution would be slow in coming:

First, the Akamai Technologies’ Global State of the Internet Report released in May says the Philippines has the slowest average internet speed in Asia Pacific. Its current average connection speed is just 5.5 Mbps (megabits per second), falling short of the global average speed of 7.2 Mbps.

Second, the Philippines lacks the requisite number of cellular towers to service the needs of the scores of millions of users among its more than 100 million population and the entire archipelago of over 7,000 islands. “The Philippines only has around 20,000 cellular towers, when it needs at least 67,000 to improve mobile data access,” Rio said. That shows the reason for the slow internet speed.

Third, the internet service in the country is mainly controlled and provided by two telecommunications companies – PLDT Inc. and Globe Telecom Inc. Their services have been woefully inadequate.

Former DICT Secretary Rodolfo Salalima was forced to resign this year principally because he could not address effectively the duopoly issue bugging the sector. His big problem was that he had come to the DICT office after having long served as an executive at Globe Telecom. As perceived by many, he left the government post because he couldn’t go against the wishes of his former employer.

Not surprisingly, Salalima’s departure has paved the way for what appears now to be a promising solution to the slow internet service in the country. Just this August, the government signed Republic Act No. 10929, which resolved that through the DICT, it would put up about 250,000 access points during the balance of the term of President Rodrigo Duterte. It adopted formally the National Broadband Plan, which seeks to provide connections of at least 4 Mbps to 100 people at every access point.

Rio has diplomatically declined to lay the blame for the lack of cellular towers on the shoulders of the duopoly. He said the telecom providers are not solely to blame for this. “Building the cellular tower is expensive. It won’t make business sense for them to go to underserved areas if they are already making a profit in Metro Manila, especially if they are not given incentives.”

It was in this light that the government recognized the way forward: and that is for government itself to construct the common towers to be leased out to telecommunications service providers as soon as possible.

Under the National Broadband Plan, these common towers will address the need for 67,000 more cell sites, Rio said. And he is confident: “We estimate that within three years, we can also migrate from the system of subscribing to telcos to the National Broadband Plan’s common towers. By that time, we won’t need to subscribe to telcos anymore.”

Aside from putting up access points and common towers, the government will also enact soon a telecommuting law “to encourage content providers to make people subscribe to high-speed internet from their homes,” Rio said.

We will still have a lot of catching up to do. But we will finally start running at a decent speed as we try to catch up with our Asia Pacific neighbors.