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Do we need another backbone

There was a lot of excitement after Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol posted online that President Duterte has approved the establishment of a national broadband plan and a national government portal during last Monday’s Cabinet meeting.

Piñol, in his post, said after a presentation made by Information and Communications Technology Secretary Rudy Salalima, the President emphasized the need for faster communications in the country.

He added that Duterte had wanted to develop a national broadband plan to accelerate the deployment of fiber optic cables and wireless technologies to improve internet speed.

This is actually not surprising considering the President, in his first State of the Nation Address in July last year, ordered the then newly created Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to draw up a plan for the deployment of a nationwide network of fiber optic cables and wireless technology

Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wanted to establish a national broadband network that would link all government agencies via the internet and has tried to implement a $329-million deal with Chinese firm ZTE Corp. but canceled it following allegations of corruption and overpricing.

Earlier, Salalima said the project would take three years to complete, even as he recommended that government build and manage the network, with private companies allowed to lease it. The project is expected to cost between P80 to P200 billion.

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DOST-ICTO executive director Louis Napoleon Casambre earlier explained the agency will formulate a national broadband plan for the Philippines (NBbP) for the next five years to ensure all Filipinos will reap the benefits of broadband and address challenges and accelerate broadband deployment.

He said the plan is envisioned to provide detailed physical targets and strategies to effect nationwide broadband deployment and widespread use.

The broadband plan would include policy decisions on the need to establish a National Internet Exchange or a peering arrangement mechanism to connect internet exchanges in the country to pave the way for a national facility that would allow government and public data to freely flow within the country.

An article by cnnphilippines.com quoted Salalima in October last year saying telecommunication companies have been unable to reach many areas in the countryside due to lack of basic infrastructure like roads, bridges and airports and that putting up their own internet infrastructure would be very expensive. He said by setting up networks in these so-called missionary areas, government hopes to lay the groundwork so telcos can come in and begin to offer much-needed internet services.

The ICT chief in the same article also said another option is for the government to not only build and manage the national broadband network but also act as a full-blown, third party-operator.

He explained the DICT is reviewing the most cost-efficient NBN for the country, would could include laying down fiber-optic cables, tapping satellites, working with the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines in tapping the latter’s existing power lines for broadband, or even entering into partnerships with the private sector including foreign ones to help take on such massive project, cnn said.

ZTE’s proposal then was said to be the most comprehensive solution and offered the widest national coverage (yugatech.com). The P15 billion NBN project proposal involved installing 300 base stations, 300 backbone stations, 30 IPMPLS nodes for an IP backbone, 28,844 customer premise equipment with voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and one Internet Data Center and Network Operation Center with a mirror site. “The transmission will be done using WirelessMan (30 kms line-of-sight) or more commonly known as WiMax (worldwide interoperability for microwave access) which will enable the network to cover all of the close to 25,000 municipalities (up to sixth class) and barangays in the country,” the same online source said.

It added each node potentially gets faster and dedicated connectivity, more secured and independent lines, free and unlimited VoIP calls to any points within the national network, cheaper international VoIP calls to government offices, embassies and other installations around the world if they are VoIP enabled, free and unlimited internet fax, and cheaper mobile phone access using SIP phones.

As pointed out in this article, it was just unfortunate that such a technological leap forward was marred with corruption and politics.

However, there are those who doubt the need for government to spend so much just to put up a fiber-optic backbone, which has been described as “a network of fiber-optic cable covering land and sea, though at times using microwave, through which all kinds of data can be transmitted, whether this be a voice call through a fixed or cellular phone, a text message, an e-mail or internet message, or a TV signal.” (aer.ph/on-the-national-broadband-project).

“There are already two functioning backbones in the country, one of which is owned by PLDT and the other effectively owned by PLDT’s competitors through Telecphil (Telecom Infrastructure Corporation of the Philippines), and these two are what we use today when we make phone calls, send e-mail, use Skype or some other form of VoIP… Private telephone companies that use these backbone facilities have consistently upgraded them to accommodate more capacity… In addition, there are already two other backbones under government control but which are unused, the French protocol backbone under the office of the press secretary, and that of the National Transmission Company (Transco). This only underscores the redundancy of the NBN project,” according to a paper written by UP professors that came to fore during the NBN-ZTE hearings.

The paper, written by then UP School of Economics dean Emmanuel de Dios and Prof. Raul Fabella, noted that if the point is to link rural to urban areas, what is needed is not another backbone, but rather the means for rural areas to connect to the backbones. It compared digital backbones to high-speed expressways to which rural areas have no access either because there are no minor roads connecting these small communities to the highway (local networks), or the people themselves have no cars (computers and peripherals) to make use of the highway.

It concluded that it is ultimately the so-called “last mile” problem or the connection from the backbone to the local communities that prevents broadband access from becoming more widespread.

It added that if NBN in aimed primarily to be a government intranet or a link among government offices themselves, the solution is not to build a third fiber optic backbone when cheap communication via the internet is already possible.

For example, why would the Post Office require a married individual to submit a copy of an NSO-certified birth certificate in order to secure a postal ID which costs as much as P500 when it could have easily accessed NSO records? For a minimum wage earner who just wants to have a government ID, isn’t P500 which is on top of the cost of getting a copy of the birth certificate too much? Does the post office need a government intranet to access this record?

For comments, e-mail at philstarhiddenagenda@yahoo.com

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