Liberalize ICT | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Liberalize ICT

/ 05:07 AM June 08, 2020

It’s now a given that the internet will play a very crucial role under the new environment brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has altered the way people around the world work, study, shop, and conduct business. The sad part is that two out of every five Filipinos are not connected to the internet, and many communities, especially in the provinces, do not have access to digital services.

The primary reason is that telecommunication companies do business where they can recover their investments and make profit. Thus, they concentrate in urban areas despite provisions in the law mandating them to also invest in so-called “unserved” and “underserved” areas where they are not expected to make huge profits.

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This has led to proposed legislation seeking to promote a new information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure across the country and pave the way for an inclusive digital economy. Pending in Congress are House Bill No. 57 and Senate Bill No. 45 called “Open Access in Data Transmission Act,” which both seek to liberalize the ICT industry by allowing more players to build and operate broadband networks, promote infrastructure sharing, and make spectrum or frequency management more transparent and fair.

The proposed law will lift the barriers to entry in the data transmission industry by removing various requirements, such as the certificate of public convenience and provisional authority required from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), as well as the congressional franchise, for entering the industry.

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It divides the industry into four segments: the international gateway, which connects to the internet using international submarine cables from various countries; the backbone network that distributes the data from international cables locally; the middle mile that connects to various provinces; and the last mile, which delivers internet services to end-users. These last two segments are where the country’s ICT structure is significantly lacking.

Aside from lower costs for users, these changes in the market structure will also spur the construction of needed broadband infrastructure in schools, local hospitals, village halls, and homes even in faraway provinces.

Bills pushing for these developments were filed in Congress in 2017. Early last year, big business groups cited this legislation as a game-changer that could catapult the country’s telecommunication and data services into the 21st century. They noted that it would give more Filipinos access to valuable information and opportunities, and more services could be delivered by the government online. More local businesses would also be connected to firms abroad.

With the COVID-19 pandemic underlining the importance of ICT in moving the economy forward, internet advocates are now urging lawmakers to act swiftly on the pending bills. Their cogent argument is that such a law would dovetail with the Department of Information and Communications Technology’s own programs for a national broadband network and free public Wi-Fi, since open access in data transmission would provide an incentive for market players to connect the “unserved” and “underserved” areas as well as deliver reliable, usable, and affordable internet to end-users.

It is, as the advocates have pointed out, time for Congress to update analog-era laws and bring them to the digital age. Congress needs to pass this law, or let much of the country continue to suffer from poor internet service, leaving millions of unconnected Filipinos behind.

Everyone seems to favor an open-access regime in data transmission, except perhaps some who are sympathetic to lobbying from existing companies with a firm hold on the internet market and will thus be affected by liberalization. However, given the severe impact of the pandemic on the economy, those blocking the proposed law’s passage should consider the welfare of the country and the people, instead of the few who have benefited and earned much from dominating the local digital space for decades now.

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TAGS: Editorial, ICT, information and communications technology, liberalization of ICT, open access, Open Access to Data Transmission Act
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