INASIA

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Philippines: Capturing the Broadband Satellite Opportunity

August 28, 2019

By Leo Carlo Liay

It’s a 45-minute drive on unpaved roads from Barangay Mabunao to Panabo, a small Philippine city in the southern province of Davao del Norte. The round trip costs “Joy” (not her real name) about US$2.00—25 percent of her daily income—just to get somewhere where she has access to a fast, reliable internet connection. But at that price, she mostly stays home, where she must bear with the sluggish, unreliable connections in her own barangay (village).

Joy is 24 years old and, like most of her generation, a digital native. She relies on social media for information. She follows current events around the globe on her mobile phone. But the poor connectivity in her remote district of Mabunao means Joy’s window to the world is a small one.

A glimpse of the remote district of Mabunao and the unpaved road leading to Panabo City.

Despite being home to the world’s most active population of social media users, and having the fastest-growing information technology and business-process outsourcing industry, the Philippines has an internet problem that threatens the country’s economic progress. The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,600 islands, which makes communications infrastructure a costly investment, and internet access points are distributed unevenly across the country. Filipinos rely almost entirely on two main telecommunications companies for internet access, and this duopoly keeps prices high and quality low.

A cell tower rising alongside palm trees in Panabo City.

Remarkably for a nation that’s mad for mobile and loves social media, almost 45 percent of Filipino citizens, and 74 percent of public schools, lack internet access altogether. Better internet coverage throughout the nation would reduce isolation and improve economic opportunities for those residing in peripheral areas. But following a simple calculus of cost-effectiveness, the nation’s communications duopoly has limited cellular infrastructure to where the most people are, in the cities. People in remote, rural areas remain unconnected.

Mobile user taking advantage of the faster and more reliable Internet connection in the urban area of Metro Manila.

In 2016, the Australian Embassy in Manila and The Asia Foundation, through its Coalitions for Change program, helped mobilize a group of information and communications technology (ICT) experts, civil society organizations, internet users, and researchers to find a fix for the Philippines’ limited internet access. The Broadband Alliance (BBA), as it came to be known, focused on a single clause in the nation’s telecommunications law. They called for reclassifying satellite broadband service as a “value-added service” instead of a “basic telecommunications service.” This simple adjustment would free satellite broadband companies from the tedious requirement of obtaining a congressional franchise and jumpstart the growth of competition in the telecommunications sector. Startups and small enterprises would be able to enter the ICT market without the expensive bureaucratic overhead.

The BBA first suggested that the administration issue an executive order, but the EO was never signed. As the BBA continued to develop policy proposals, making satellite connectivity a component of the National Broadband Plan, to complement the government’s poorly performing Free Public Wi-Fi project, turned out to be key.

In 2017, the appointment of BBA ally Eliseo Rio as secretary of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) boosted the chances of reform. The legislature was also becoming increasingly sympathetic. When the free wi-fi bill reached the bicameral conference committee hearing, the BBA pushed for the satellite provision. The House and Senate both accepted the recommendation, and the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act (Republic Act 10929) became law, with the BBA provision in place, in August 2017.

DICT regional office in Davao advertising the government’s Free Public Wi-Fi project, known as Pipol Konek.

The new law had an immediate impact on the Free Public Wi-Fi program, now known as Pipol Konek. According to data from DICT, the program installed more than three times as many access points in the 24 months after the law was passed as it had in the previous 32 months under the old Free Public Wi-Fi project—an increase from 807 installations to 2,708 in just two-thirds the time. Remote and impoverished municipalities such as Simunul, Tawi-Tawi, and San Jose, on the Dinagatan Islands, could now access the internet, via satellite, for the first time. Even Pag-asa Island, the largest Philippine-administered island of the internationally disputed Spratly group, was introduced to free wireless internet last July.

Satellite technology provides the remote Mabunao National High School with free internet connection.

In 2017, in The Evolving Role of Satellite Networks in Rural and Remote Broadband Access, the OECD wrote: “Governmental policy in a number of countries has acknowledged the role that satellite could play to connect rural and remote areas, and many have incorporated subsidies for satellite service in their national broadband plans. Strides have also been made to reduce the regulatory burden on satellite broadband providers….”

It is safe to say that the Philippines is now among those countries that recognize the power and importance of satellite broadband.

Internet Service Provider (ISP) operators installing a broadband satellite system for a Free Public Wi-Fi hotspot in Mabunao, Philippines.

Thanks to the 2017 law, the Pipol Konek project is now rolling out free public wi-fi hotspots across the country using satellite technology. Residents of the Philippines’ far-flung and less-developed areas can now access reliable internet for free, with all the potentially life-changing possibilities that entails. Better livelihoods, education, and communication are just a few of the anticipated outcomes of the thriving Pipol Konek free wi-fi program.

Leo Carlo Liay is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. He can be reached at leocarlo.liay@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Technology & Development
Related topics: Internet

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