Goodbye, decent broadband!
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - May 24, 2019 - 12:00am

The Senate has approved the creation of a Philippine Space Agency which aims to make us space capable in the next decade.

That’s a laugh. We can’t even have decent broadband service in this country and here is the Senate prioritizing the creation of a space agency.

Actually, if the Senate wants us to have productive use of outer space, they should have prioritized passage of a bill that allows more entities access to satellites that provide internet service.

But no thanks to Sen.Ralph Recto, we can say goodbye to any hope of having better broadband services soon. With barely a week of session days left in the outgoing Congress, the Open Access Bill already passed by the House will not likely become law.

That means it will have to be re-filed when the new Congress convenes in July.

Sen. Recto raised national security objections to the bill. Sen. Recto also raised the same national security concerns in blocking the revised Public Service Act (PSA) that also proposes to introduce more competition in the telco business.

Sen. Recto supposedly thinks removing nationality equity restrictions will enable China’s entry into the telco and broadband businesses and that’s a security threat. But the Chinese are already here. The Senate almost unanimously allowed Mislatel to effectively renew its franchise so it can be the third telco with China Telecom.

Indeed, even without equity in our telcos, the Chinese can theoretically access our phone networks through the equipment they sold Globe and Smart. I hope Senator Recto isn’t suggesting we should order our telcos to return the network equipment they bought from Huawei. That will look as silly as the Trump ban that is starting to rattle world trade.

Sen. Recto must also realize holding up passage of the Open Access bill only hurts local internet users without making us more secure against potential Chinese intrusion.

In any case, the DICT has submitted proposed amendments to the Open Access bill to better protect national security. Among others, DICT proposed to retain the franchise requirement for the international cable landing station and nationwide backbone network. All other segments will be open to encourage vigorous competition to improve service and drive down subscription rates.

Hopefully, Sen. Recto will adopt the DICT’s recommendations and allow the bill to move forward with amendments.

But let us be clear that passage of the Open Access bill should not be dependent on the passage of the PSA. If the senators want more discussion on the PSA, they can tackle the Open Access bill first.

Right now, the Open Access bill is not on the Senate’s list of priority bills. There is time to put it there.

I have written about the need for open access a number of times because I think it is a more immediately “doable” solution to our national broadband problem.

Telecom industry analyst Grace Mirandilla Santos explained that the Open Access bill aims to lower barriers to entry for data service providers, reduce inefficiencies in network deployment, and introduce some aspects of spectrum management reform.

According to Grace, if passed into law, the Open Access bill will introduce a regulatory framework that will encourage competition, mandate interconnection of networks, promote infrastructure sharing, and bring the country to the digital age.

The bill was approved by the House of Representatives in November 2017 and is pending second reading in the Senate since March 2018. Sen. Bam Aquino has regularly included the Open Access bill on the Senate agenda since May 2018, to no avail.

Why is this Open Access bill important? Simply because it will cut the exclusive right of telcos to access satellites that connect us to the world via internet.

If Facebook or Google is providing free internet access to the world, under our current law, only the telcos can pick up from their satellites. If we open up the system, you will have many more value-added service providers ready to provide vigorous competition to benefit us, subscribers.

The smaller players don’t want to be telcos, but they want to provide specific broadband services to specific clients in specific locations.  Putting up a telco entails an enormous amount of serious money for capital.

The bill’s declaration of policy says it all. Among others, it seeks to narrow the digital divide by encouraging the development of data transmission infrastructure and remove  any barrier to competition in data transmission services.

It looks like a good reform bill. Since we aren’t likely to benefit any time soon from competition offered by the third telco, our only real hope for civilized broadband service is the passage of the bill.

Today, data networks are lumped together with telecom (local exchange, circuit switched) networks, which actually work differently and, therefore, should be treated separately.

The Open Access bill will enable small broadband providers to build and operate networks especially in communities that are not considered commercially viable by the large players.

It will also promote transparent and equitable spectrum management and clarify and update the role of NTC in the data/broadband age.

If the bill is killed by the Senate in this Congress, expect Philippine internet to remain slow and expensive. It’s an unfortunate, frustrating situation given all the work that have been put in by ICT champions in Congress and concerned stakeholders for the past two years.

Alternatively, perhaps President Duterte can issue an executive order that will declare internet commerce platforms classified as value added services outside NTC regulation and do not require congressional franchise.

During the Ramos administration, an executive order took the recording industry outside of mass media and, therefore, not subject to 100 percent Filipino ownership restrictions.

Whatever means we get this done, we need to do it fast. It will make a difference in our lives in this digital age.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

BROADBAND SERVICE PHILIPPINE SPACE AGENCY
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