Andami Kong Alam: Time is up for time outs

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Pic unrelated but pretty badass

In the virtual reality Metaverse of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, online users are represented by avatars.

They can be as fanciful as the user has the skill and the cash can make them: “You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all these.”

For those who lack the equipment and money, there are bargain off-the-shelf avatars, the Clints and Brandys.

“Brandy has a limited repertoire of facial expressions: cute and pouty; cute and sultry; perky and interested; smiling and receptive; cute and spacy. Her eyelashes are half an inch long, and the software is so cheap that they are rendered as solid ebony chips.” The Clint is just the male version, with a range of expressions just as limited.

Published in 1992—two years before the Philippines connected to the Internet—the novel paints a virtual world that people can actually spend their lives in (and some do because of the collapse of central governments and social order in general).

But 20 years after the Philippine Internet was born, high costs and poor quality have relegated most netizens to being Cliffs and Brandys, logged in but unable to experience the Metaverse fully. It is a situation easily dismissed on social media as a “First World Problem”, given the myriad social problems the Philippines has to deal with, but it is also something that is keeping us from leaving the so-called Third World.

State of the Internet

Although the Philippines has been dubbed the social media capital of the world because of the number of Facebook users in the country, that does not mean much meaningful interaction happens there.

Many people, usually those who comment most but contribute least on FB comment threads, are online through Free FB, a promo that charges for access to outgoing links. The cost and slow connection means it is often quicker and cheaper to fire off less than informed opinions.

But public discourse is just the most visible victim of the Philippine Internet, which, at an average speed of 2 Mbps, according to a State of the Internet report released by US-based Akamai Technologies this year, is among the slowest in the region.

For Rex, a waiter at a Cubao bar whose OFW girlfriend was waiting for repatriation from Kuwait for a month and a half, the Internet was a lifeline and Facebook chat was their only means of updating each other.

VOIP services, which would have been a blessing for a country that exports workers, are still not cheap enough – and as my fiancee in New York and I have found while trying to Skype on a smartphone – nor are they very reliable.

Although it will not quite address the problem of labor export, reliable Internet would at least have helped ease the strain of having a parent or a child working abroad.

Faster connections would also have helped Filipino students take advantage of developments in distance learning and open education, a potential boon for a country with an emphasis on education but a government that has been slow in providing quality facilities.

Better Internet could also mean access to skills training and education that would make working abroad an option and not a sacrifice.

“Expanding the Internet, including to rural areas, leads to new opportunities for non-agricultural employment, better paying agricultural jobs and greater overall productivity. Access to the Internet also fosters small and micro-business growth, allows citizens in remote areas to work from home, provides greater access to crop market prices and enables rural businesses to compete more effectively in world markets,” the Commission on Information and Communications Technology wrote in Philippine Digital Strategy 2011-2015 almost half a decade ago.

Yet broadband penetration in the Philippines is at a little over three percent against the 80 percent that the Philippine Digital Strategy projected by 2016.

In the words of one the memes that spread across this social media capital: Anong petsa na?

Infrastructure and interconnection

Telcos say it is unfair to compare the Philippines to Singapore, where the average is 7.9 Mbps and 15-Mbps plans are available for a little more than P1,000.

“The Philippines has 7,100 islands so it’s an expensive network to put up. It’s a far more complex network,” Vicente Froilan Castelo, general legal counsel for Globe Telecom Inc. said at a recent Senate hearing.

“The private sector is doing its job to get standards higher,” Smart Communications spokesman Ramon Isberto told the same Senate panel.

To be fair, telcos have been investing in infrastructure and industry leader PLDT now offers broadband plans from P3,500 a month for connection speeds of up to 8 Mbps to P20,000 a month for speeds of up to 100 Mbps.

That is a fine development for enterprises and business process outsourcing firms, the growth of which, and the connection speeds of whom the National Telecommunications Commission holds up as proof that the Philippine Internet is not that bad.

ICT researcher Grace Mirandilla-Santos writes in TelecomAsia.Net, though, that “it has yet to be seen how these investments in infrastructure would translate to better Internet services, especially for the low-end Internet market.”

According to engineer Pierre Tito Galla, one of the founders of Democracy.net.ph, an advocacy group pushing for a comprehensive Philippine ICT policy, the lack of interconnection between Internet service providers helps keep connections slow.

Without a local Internet exchange (IX), local traffic has to connect to an international network, usually in Hong Kong or the US, before coming back to the Philippines.

The NTC issued a draft circular in 2011 to require interconnection between Philippines ISPs, a move that PLDT opposed and continues to oppose. The NTC circular remains a draft.

Isberto, also spokesman for PLDT, has said IP peering among ISPs won’t necessarily mean faster connections and might “compromise the quality and security of Internet traffic in the country.”

Interconnection would also, Galla said, take away PLDT’s advantage over other providers. Or, as Isberto said, “effectively penalize those who have invested heavily in their networks and reward those who have not.”

Interconnection through an IX will make it easier and cheaper for new ISPs to enter the market, which will mean more competition, something that NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba said the Philippine Internet currently lacks.

The PDS noted years ago that “communication network development, access, affordability and use are strongly driven by competition between operators.” With the consolidation of operators over the years, that competition has increasingly been just between Globe and PLDT’s Smart.

Policy Problems

There is little that government can do with policies that date back to the analog age. Although access to the Internet is now considered a human right, in the eyes of the law and the NTC, it is still a value-added service and not a basic one that the government can regulate fully.

The Public Telecommunications Policy Act of 1995 helped open up the market to new players like BayanTel and Globe but the PDS notes “it now restricts the NTC as it struggles to apply an increasingly obsolete law” to the ever-changing Internet.

The NTC’s recent order requiring telcos to refund consumers for overpriced text messaging fees at a time when text messaging is dwindling – an order that the telcos are resisting—shows just how outdated and powerless it has become.

The Commission on Information and Communications Technology, which expected to be replaced by a Department of ICT by now, recommended crafting a new law that would address the convergence of telecommunications, content, and computing.

One such proposal is the Magna Carta for the Philippine Internet Freedom, which Democracy.net.ph and lawmakers in both Houses are pushing for.

The MCPIF, initially drafted as an answer to the draconian Cybercrime Prevention Act, creates a Department of ICT for policy making and gives the NTC the power to regulate pricing, “mandate a fair and reasonable interconnection of facilities”, and encourage investment in telecommunications infrastructure in far-flung areas of the country.

Senator Ralph Recto has meanwhile filed a bill requiring a minimum connection speed of 10 Mbps for mobile Internet and speeds of at least 20 Mbps.

Recto, known for the wordplay in his press releases had this to say: “The national march towards a broader internet or Wi-Fi access should be in cadence with a decent internet speed. Aanhin mo ang Wi-Fi kung puro ka naman antay?”

At a recent Senate hearing on Internet speeds, Senator Loren Legarda, who professes to being “low-tech”, had a plainer plea: “Fair is fair. The rates should be adjusted lower.”

Rejected with cause by an actual publication. That cause being my life sort of fell apart and I didn’t have time to fix the piece.

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