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The pathetic state of PH Internet

01:04 AM September 01, 2015

IF THERE were an Olympics for Internet speed, the Philippines would not even make it to the qualifying round.

A May 2015 study by Ookla revealed that at 2.5 megabits per second (mbps), the Philippines has the second-slowest Internet in Asia, next only to Afghanistan. Our average Internet speed is slower even than Myanmar (6.54 mbps), let alone Thailand (19.82 mbps), and Singapore (122.43 mbps). Other studies in the past have reached similar conclusions, with one showing that the Philippines has one of the worst broadband LTE connections in the world.

As bothersome as these reports are, they shouldn’t be that surprising. Most of us live with slow and unreliable Internet connections. A YouTube video takes ages to load. Sometimes, it even takes several attempts just to post a photo on Instagram. Of course, experiencing or even just hearing about Internet speeds in other countries makes us wonder why, despite the Philippines’ crop of IT experts scattered all over the world, we are greatly left behind.

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To make matters worse, we are actually paying more for our crappy Internet connections than others with far better ones. MyRepublic, a Singapore company, offers 1 gbps speeds for the equivalent of only S$50 (around P1,600/month). In comparison, for a monthly fee of P1,899, PLDT offers published speeds of “up to 8 mbps”—and that comes with a 50 GB cap. Isn’t it ironic? Despite the higher standard of living in Singapore, its residents enjoy much cheaper—and faster—Internet.

It’s not that fast Internet isn’t available in the Philippines. PLDT offers faster connections—but at a much higher price: a 200 mbps plan costs a whopping P20,000/month. Who are able to avail themselves of this but the ultrarich? Mediocre Internet speed is a problem that disproportionately affects the poor and the middle class.

* * *

The Internet is more than a platform through which people upload their selfies. It is the fundamental economic infrastructure of our time. One EU report quipped that “if the Internet were a country, it would rank fifth in the world in terms of its GDP, after the US, China, Japan and India, but ahead of Germany.”

The importance of the Internet means that Internet speed is of vital importance to any economy. One study showed that slow Internet speeds in the United Kingdom is costing the country GBP 11 billion a year. Surely, the same can be said of the Philippines. We are losing money and our competitive edge in the world arena because of our slow Internet.

The indispensability of the Internet in our everyday lives has led global leaders like US President Barack Obama to call it a “public good”—which means that one’s enjoyment of it shouldn’t impede the enjoyment of others. In a similar vein, others have called for declaring Internet access a “human right.” On the other hand, neoliberal critics of these approaches say that free market economics should simply be allowed to take its course.

Unfortunately, because of the oligopoly that has a stranglehold over our telecommunications systems, this is not an option for the Philippines. The fact that Sun Cellular was acquired in 2011 by PLDT, the same company that owns Smart, has all but doomed our chances of meaningful competition in the near future.

Thus, the only way is for us to call upon our government to address this very public concern.

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There have been promising signs that our legislators are listening. In 2014, Sen. Bam Aquino and Las Piñas Rep. Mark Villar both called for investigations on the slow Internet. In June 2015, Sen. Chiz Escudero—whose speech inspired the title of this piece—likewise called for stronger action.

But as we know all too well, calling for government action is one thing and actual change is another. On a recent Facebook post, Senator Aquino lamented that the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) has not acted on its commitment to release a memorandum dictating the minimum Internet speed and quality for all telecommunication companies to follow.

Finger-pointing has befuddled the issue. In a hearing last January, the big telcos pointed to tower fees and bureaucratic red tape as hindrances to building more towers and expanding more coverage. IT experts, on the other hand, have pointed to PLDT’s constant refusal to “IP peer” with other local Internet-service providers as a major roadblock to faster Internet speeds in the country. These explanations must be thoroughly investigated and acted upon. The NTC, backed by the national government, must cover all bases if it is to reach the modest target of 15 mbps broadband speed by 2016.

* * *

Our demand is simple: Make Internet in the Philippines as fast, accessible, reliable and affordable as in other Asean countries.

Students doing their assignments shouldn’t have to wait for hours just to download a PDF file. Overseas Filipino workers shouldn’t have to deal with pixelated faces of their loved ones when their colleagues from other countries can easily see theirs in high definition. Businesses and bloggers alike shouldn’t have to be outclassed by others just because their connections are lagging behind. And most importantly, the poor shouldn’t have to endure a slow Internet while the rich can afford to have faster ones: The baseline should be good enough.

There is no excuse for slow and unreliable Internet when telcos make billions of pesos in annual revenues. The government must recognize the Internet as a public good and take strong action based on this premise if we are to be lifted from this pathetic state.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

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