Because the government failed to invest in telco infrastructure over the past decade, the rollout of the free public wireless connection had to encounter some form of delay, as contractors still had to rely on the existing infrastructure of the two giant telcos that only built their networks in places that are economically viable.
Hence, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) is now looking at solving this problem by seeking aid from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which could help bring in the technical know-how in building a nationwide infrastructure that could help bridge the digital divide through free Internet access.
DICT chief Eliseo M. Rio Jr. issued the statement in response to a query that Sen. Juan Edgardo M. Angara posted over the weekend, questioning the slow-paced deployment of free Internet access to public places, particularly in state-owned universities and colleges (SUCs).
The Cabinet official explained that the supposed delay stems from the fact that contractors for the free Wi-fi program of the government — dubbed as Pipol Konek — rely on the existing infrastructure that the two incumbent telcos have.
Connections, he said, are limited because PLDT Inc. and Globe Telecom Inc. only build their commercial points-of-presence (POP) in areas that are commercially viable, hence, reaching only a “very small percentage” of the government’s target access points (AP).
“It is now clear that our local telcos can’t presently cope with our demand for Free Wi-fi APs. It is for this reason that we are pursuing another approach to implement the Free Wifi Law using the DICT 2018 budget for this,” Rio said.
Officials from the two telcos said both need to “check the facts” first before issuing an official statement.
The said approach, Rio noted, involves tapping foreign expertise to fix the problem on the buildup. To fund this, the department plans to use the 2018 budget allocated through the general appropriations act.
“We are seeking the help of the UNDP to bring in foreign companies and technology to set up a National Free Wi-Fi Network, to train our people and telcos on roll-outs done in other countries with very successful free Wi-fi programs,” Rio explained.
This, he said, “will fast-track our 2018 and 2019 implementation of the Free Wi-fi Law, especially in SUCs.”
The same approach will be done even with the cash-based budget for 2019, he added.
‘Not enough last mile’
“The lessons learned here is that at present, our commercial telcos, especially the giants Globe and PLDT/Smart are not geared to providing Wi-fi hot spots with sufficient bandwidth in public places,” Rio said.
Pierre Tito M. Galla, who co-founded consumer group Democracy.PH, noted that the issue is not really in the last mile, but on the fact that there are only two providers that have national backbones.
“So, two things: one, if the duopoly won’t supply to the last mile players—or overcharge and make it economically nonviable, which is the same thing—then those last mile players cannot connect the schools, and; two, it illustrates the need for the immediate enactment of the Open Access in Data Transmission Act, so that alternatives to the middle mile and backbone will have less barriers to entry,” he said.
Internet Society of the Philippines Chairman Winthrop Y. Yu, agreed with Galla on the need for legislation on open access, adding that the problem just reflects the immense need for a national backbone and middle-mile infrastructure.
“This emphasizes the importance of backbone and middle-mile infrastructure, which lack can be addressed by both the government and more private-sector players,” he said.
Rio noted that the government is now working toward the creation of a national backbone though several initiatives including the tripartite agreement with the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines and National Transmission Corp. for the use of dark fiber, the National Broadband Plan and the Luzon Bypass Infrastructure.
The backbone from the power companies, on the other hand, was secured sometime in June, when the two companies signed a tripartite agreement with Rio’s office for the use and access in certain spare fiber- optic cores, vacant lots, tower spaces and related facilities.
Combined, two energy companies’ dark fiber facilities span 6,154 kilometers across Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao.
Meanwhile, the National Broadband Plan will spell out the needs for a National Broadband Network, which will include the development and deployment of a mixture of several Internet connectivity, technologies, such as fixed line and mobile data, among others, all over the Philippines—including missionary areas.
On the other hand, the Luzon Bypass Infrastructure, being constructed by the Bases Conversion and Development Authority in partnership with Facebook, will be a 250-kilometer cable network corridor that will provide a terrestrial bypass route for international submarine cable owners.
It will have a capacity of two terabytes per second, which is almost equal to the combined capacity of PLDT and Globe.
The government has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Electrification Administration so that the government can put up its own POPs in all provinces and municipalities, that it would be within reach of all Internet service providers.
“With all these in place by 2019, and with the help of UNDP, we will be able to implement the free Wi-fi law much faster and more efficiently,” Rio said.
Currently, there are about 1,592 Free Wi-Fi sites across the Philippines. This represents a 98-percent increase in just 11 months from 807 ports in October 2017.