Why Philippine Internet is slow, and what we can do to solve it

MacbookPro

“Engage!” I muttered, to myself, as my finger pressed “enter”. The script executed. Faster than an eye blink, the command traveled nearly thirteen thousand kilometers way, on the other side of the planet. Tython received it, and started to chew on my script.

Tython is a 1.22 kg heavy, 19.7 cm wide, and 3.6 cm tall server made of polished aircraft grade aluminum that I named after the Jedi homeworld. I got it last Christmas, partly as a present to myself, and partly as business expansion. The guys I rent colocation data center space from, had it on sale. Pre-owned. I was broke, but I took it. I will finish paying for it by next Christmas. It isn’t the fastest, or most powerful piece of silicon anywhere in the Interwebs, but, it is mine. It is doing this work; an extension of my will.

Over three thousand kilometers away in Culver City, a little flat box that I rent, and I called Multiversary, which is as wide, as tall, but not as long as a pizza box would answer Tython’s “call.” If it could talk, I imagine Multiversary would say to Tython in a booming voice like that of a Guardian of Forever, “State your business! None may pass without The Key!”

All this happened faster than you can blink an eye.

Tython waved a copy of my public key. It’s like a badge. An ID telling Mutiversary that Tython represents me. He has orders from their master. Multiversary looked at its private key to verify if Tython’s key is authentic.

“You may enter!”

Tython stepped in, and pokes around Multiversary.

My instructions were simple. Go to the domains folder, and rsync that. My script told Tython exactly what I want it to do. In plain english, the script translates to telling the computer to look at folder A, and folder B. Compare them. If B is different from A, then copy what’s different from A to B. If the difference in B from A is just one word, out of a paragraph, then it will only copy that one word from A to B to make them identical.

Rsync is a powerful little tool. It is a lifesaver for people like me. If you’ve ever used Dropbox, this whole process is Dropbox-like.

In this case, I knew very well how different B was from A. It was 45 Gigbytes different. It was a fresh backup. I wanted to start over with this work. If 45 Gigabytes was money, it would be worth 45 Billion.

Yeah, with a big B.

That’s a lot.

It is the same size as 11.25 4GB USB drives that you can buy from CD-R King.

The script zoomed. This is work. People pay me to back up their websites, and online world. It took less than five minutes to write the bash script. It wasn’t hard. In fact, quite trivial in the world I thrive in.

Did I mention, as all this was happening while I was in Manila? I watched it go from half a world away. I was doing this remotely from Manila, Philippines. It is +8GMT on your clock. Manila might was well translate to Hades— the underworld capital of the Internet. It was a Tuesday here. It was a Monday in Milwaukee. Oddly, I sometimes think of it as me in the future, time traveling to the past to affect the future.

I got up to get some lunch. There was nothing more to do, but wait for the script to finish syncing.

Twenty minutes later, I get back to my laptop. Forty-five Gigabytes copied across state lines, done.

It was like copying files from a laptop to an external drive that was sitting on my desk.

If I had done this from California to Manila it would have taken a month of round the clock downloading, and it might not even get done.

I’m a microscopic fish in a big pond. If it took me a month to do this sort of work, who would hire me to work?

That’s how bad it is.

It will take a month to transfer 45 Gigabytes across thirteen thousand kilometers versus three thousand kilometers in fewer minutes than it would take to eat lunch.

Is the Internet limited to people like me who make our bread, and cheese online? All my clients are hosted on super fast data centers. Tython for example operates at 1 gigabit per second. It’s a business plan, sure. At the level data centers around the world operate, they buy bandwidth in bulk. Tython also exists on a first world country where the Internet was invented. There is a world of difference between Manila, and Washington. The difference is like one of those Chinese tablet running Android that you can get for a hundred dollars or less, and an iPad.

The Global Information Technology Report which highlights the “Networked Readiness Index (NRI)” clearly describes the difference in measurable numbers. The index measures the tendency for nation-states to exploit information and communications technology opportunities. The Global Information Technology Report 2014 report entitled, “Rewards and Risks of Big Data” highlighted that the Philippines jumped 8 places up to 78th position and is now ahead of Vietnam, and is identified that the country’s ICT readiness is where it ‘most improved’. While it is a good thing that the Philippines jumped so high, in so little time, clearly there is room for improvement.

The United States ranks 7th in the world.

In terms of affordability, the Philippines ranked 75. In terms of infrastructure, and digital content: 89. In terms of skills, 69.

The Internet and productivity

Traffic

Like how bad the traffic is, much productivity is lost just because the Internet is slow. So much business opportunity is lost because the Internet is slow, and expensive. This fact escapes no one. And yet, everyone seem to complain about how bad the Internet is. Like a wall of frustration asking: how can this be better? More importantly, I think the question is: how can this be simpler? Like Magic. Like being ubiquitous. It just is. You know?

Haven’t you been to the point of emailing a client a deck or document, and it took ages to send? A couple of megabytes that shouldn’t take a minute to send, but takes forever to deliver?

That’s loss of productivity right there.

Coincidently, the World Bank says that investment in broadband boosts GDP: for every 10-percentage point rise in broadband penetration there is an economic growth of 1.38-percentage points for low, and middle income countries— country bracket where the Philippines is.

The Internet as general purpose technology

Skyway

Broadband Internet, and the underlying infrastructure is a general purpose technology. Electricity, railroad, roads— they are examples of general purpose technologies. General Purpose Technology affect the entirety of an economy. These technologies speed the economy along. Many companies around the world can’t operate without electricity— doctors can’t heal the sick with out patients undergoing diagnosis— which all require electricity— laboratory tests, x-rays, CT-scans, MRIs, etc. Roads and railways are general purpose technologies because they transport people— you and I— across vast distances. They transport food– vegetables, poultry, meat, etc. from across provincial, and city lines. So in the same vein, the Internet is now as essential. Businesses cannot thrive without email. Even small businesses need to communicate using it.

Marketing people send decks; have websites built, and they interact on social media. In our professional, and private lives, we use the Internet to communicate with people. Virtual has created whole new opportunities.

Speaking of opportunities, Business Mirror recently published an article on the pros and cons of a digital store, and so the Internet, just as technology has become, highly entrenched in the modern economy.

Government and the Internet

Screenshot of i.Gov.PH

A few years ago, the now defunct Commission on Information and Communications Technology published the Philippine Digital Strategy 2011 to 2016 (PDS). The CICT was established by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and subsequently abolished by President Benigno S. Aquino III. The PDS, actually, if you read it is nothing to phone home about. At one point, the so-called strategy mentioned a legislative agenda, but nothing specific is indicated in the report. The PDS evolved into the e-Government Master Plan.

The Philippine Government is moving forward with its [E-Government Master Plan. It draws input from the Philippine Digital Strategy. The EGMP was developed by the National IT Promotion Team, and the National Computer Center, and it worked on, and with input from South Korea. The Master Plan is about integrating, and interconnecting government agencies, and prioritizing e-Government projects. This is an important, and crucial step.

Clearly, the government is keenly aware of how important the Internet is, especially with respect to, and in delivering services online. There are many social media strategies at play across various levels of government for example. The government’s I.T. engine is on the move. It is moving ahead with i.Gov.ph— meant to interconnect government agencies, and enhance delivery of services to the public. Quite recently, the Department of Justice recently launch the e-Subpoena initiative, which the Philippine Daily Inquirer dubbed, “a web-based information system that speeds up the transmittal of court subpoenas and notices to the police”. The Department of Science and Technology also announced
Fiber optic cable for fast ‘Net to connect 160 agencies.” Lastly, and not least bit, the Presidential Communications Development, and Strategic Planning Office, launched Open Data as part of its Open Government Initiative. There is also a Big Data Initiative in the pipeline.

The government is clearly focused on delivering e-services to the public. It is clearly leveraging technologies towards this purpose. This is a laudable thrust.

Internet speed in the Philippines

There have been many who are questioning how bad the Internet in the Philippines is. Most especially after this infographic went viral:

source: https://www.facebook.com/ASEANDNA
source: https://www.facebook.com/ASEANDNA

Senator Bam Aquino, for example is seeking to investigate how slow the Internet is.

Stakeholders should work for better internet service. Source: https://twitter.com/bamaquino/status/464368567513673728
Stakeholders should work for better internet service.
Source: https://twitter.com/bamaquino/status/464368567513673728

Senator Bam Aquino called on stakeholders to work for better internet service

Remember the Global Information Technology Report? Here are other countries who are ahead of the Philippines in terms of Network Readiness: Sri Lanka, 76; Greece 74; Trinidad and Tobago 71, South Africa, 70; Brazil, 69; Thailand, 67; Indonesia, 64; China, 62 It goes without saying that South Korea is 10, Hong Kong (SAR) is 8, Singapore is 2.

Philippine Star columnist Boo Chanco asked for the opinion of the National Telecommunications Commission with regard to the viral message saying the Internet in the Philippines is slow, and crappy. NTC Chairman Gamaliel Cordova wrote Mr. Chanco back to say it is all the fault of R.A. No. 7925, which in plain english is “An Act to Promote and Govern the Development of Philippine Telecommunications and the Delivery of Public Telecommunications Services”.

As Chairman Cordova put it to Mr. Chanco:

“R.A. No. 7925 was issued in 1995 when the Internet was still an emerging and expensive technology. This is the reason why NTC wants this law reviewed, and amended to make it more applicable to the present situation.”

Lawyer Cecile Soria— a co-author of the netizen bill Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom— disagrees. She writes: “RA 7925 does not define a value-added service. It does however say that a value-added service provider is.”

“Value-added service provider (VAS) – an entity which, relying on the transmission, switching and local distribution facilities of the local exchange and inter-exchange operators, and overseas carriers, offers enhanced services beyond those ordinarily provided for by such carriers.

(Another pertinent part of the law is section 11, but you can read that on your own).

Anyway, Atty. Soria notes that Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company’s Philippine Stock Exchange filing does not consider Mobile Internet as part of the Value-Added Services.

“Wait!” Winthrop Yu says:

“The assumption here is that NTC cannot regulate ISPs because they are VASes, the fact is NTC can and does regulate ISPs here in the Philippines and does treat them as common carriers (except for the need for a congressional franchise if they are only ISPs and not otherwise telcos).

One fact I keep pointing-out — Data Usage Caps, while thoroughly legal and a contractual mater for which the telcos/ISPs do not need prior NTC approval, are proof of “over-subscription”. And the NTC can issue a “freeze order” preventing the telcos from accepting new applications while they are “over-subscribed”.

Getting back to VAS … the issue came to a (somewhat heated) head in 2003 or 2004, when the question arose as to whether VOIP was a “voice service” or a VAS. At our (PICS) open symposium on the topic which included NTC the telcos and the independent ISPs, the discussion started like this —

NTC Commissioner #1: We have determined that VOIP is a “voice service” …

NTC Commissioner #2: He does not speak for the entire Commission!

In the end NTC sided with us and declared that VOIP was NOT a “voice service”, and that VOIP (as well as the entities that provided the service) were VASes.

In summary — our situation is very different from that in the US. Re-classifying Internet (and the services that run on it) as common carriers or telecommunications services would create a barrier to entry (Congressional franchise requirement) and further restrict the playing field, exacerbating an already cartelized industry and resulting in even poorer, slower service in the future.

Confucius applies — Be Careful What You Wish For.

“Winthrop,” Grace Mirandilla-Santos began, “You’re correct; that’s one big implication of redefining the internet as a basic telecom service. Unless, we can push that NTC regulate the service providers, not the service. PTEs with permission to offer a VAS does not cease to be a PTE. In fact, because of its default advantage over strictly ISPs, and given the growing importance of the Internet, NTC can and should step in to protect consumer welfare (one of its 3 core mandates, apart from promoting a healthy competitive environment and universal access).”

Lawyer Oliver Reyes says, “If ISPs are classified as public utilities, yes they have to comply with 60/40 nationality rule (60% PH ownership), only amendment to Constitution can change that.”

“Taking off from Oli’s answer,” Grace added, “if the ISP happens to be a PTE (public telecom entity) like PLDT, Globe, etc, they need to comply with 60/40 rule. But if the ISPs are not PTEs, they don’t. And this is the situation today. However, since your ISPs cannot build their own network and are dependent on the PTEs’ infrastructure and IGFs (for international traffic), the PTEs naturally have the upper hand in everything related to the internet business.”

According to the eGov Master Plan the U.N. determined this:

UN Report -

Note, infrastructure not good enough.

The government is building e-services. They have been busy integrating the various agencies from an infrastructure, and software level. This is welcome, yes?

Then on the other hand you have the private sector with increasing average speed, and largely, anecdotal evidence of pissed off customers.

What are we to do?

Policy problem

While there has been marked improvement in the Network Readiness Index ranking, the Philippines does rank 75 in affordability, 89 in infrastructure, and digital content and 69 in skills. So clearly, there is room for much improvement. Clearly, the problem is an infrastructure one.

If the Philippines jumped 8 places given the current climate— think of how much it could jump with the right policy in place going forward. We need to take the next step in a National Broadband Plan given the mess that is called VAS. At the end of the day, the root cause of the problem is policy.

Wait hold on— isn’t the Free Market suppose to be a good thing?

Yes, it is, in fact, the problem per se, isn’t that the system isn’t a free market. The problem is the lack of direction. A lack of vision amongst the various stakeholders— at least from the perspective of infrastructure. (The government seem to be doing just fine in building e-services, with a mid-term assessment soon.)

In short, it is policy on the infrastructure, and business side that’s been missing.

Does policy mean we tell telcos to do this, or that? Does policy mean the death of the free market?

No, it does not.

Policy is— and should be— positive initiative that spurs innovation, investment, access to information; prevent unfair pricing, consumer exploitation, breaches of privacy. It should produce positive outcomes while minimizing cumbersome, confusing, changing regulations— or in the Philippines’ case— outdated laws like R.A. 7925. In short, policy is fair play in a free market.

Steps need to be taken

Truth be told, there is no single answer expect that it should be a meeting of the minds by various stakeholders. In my humble opinion, these are some of the steps that need to be taken to help solve how badly the Internet is in the Philippines.

First, Establish a strong foundation for growth by passing the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom (#MCPIF).

Second, establish a national broadband infrastructure plan, with the South Korean model as an ideal, and with stakeholders— in the public, private, and consumer spaces engaging in meaningful dialogue; (The e-government master plan seem to be on the right track, we’ll probably know more as DOST-ICTO finishes its assessment.) The infrastructure plan should include:

a) Ways to get more players in to be competitive;

b) Build more International Gateway Facilities;

c) Encourage building local exchanges, proxies, and data centers;

d) Create meaningful competition in the marketplace;

Lastly, ensure Quality of Service from all the Telcos, and properly monitored, and regulatory empowered by the National Telecommunications Commission.

The first step – #MCPIF

As early as the 15th Philippine Congress, netizens led by democracy.net.ph started to push for setting the stage for better policy, and this is called the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom (#MCPIF).

The #MCPIF does the following policy changes: lays a foundation for innovation, and investment; grants universal access to information; establishes a framework to prevent consumer exploitation, and cybercrimes; prevent breaches in privacy; and lastly lays a foundation for cybersecurity. The #MCPIF does this through four pillars: Rights. Development. Governance. Security.

The freedom doctrine

The Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom starts off by “invoking the spirit of the 13th century Angevin charter”, as one journalist called it. As our group— democracy.net.ph— said before the Philippine Senate Science and Technology Committee, “To borrow from John F. Kennedy: We are here to promote the freedom doctrine.

Why is this important? Because it is important to start at the beginning. As one of the drafters of #MCPIF, I can tell you that it was important to us that Internet legislation would begin from a Bill of Rights perspective. Without this, you get legislation like the Cybercrime Prevention Act (#RA10175).

On a personal note, it was important to me that we started with freedom because that was what the code was about. The Internet is a network of networks. It was a means by which to interconnect different networks, and to get them to speak with each other. The Internet protocol suite— Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP)— provided an expression that put intelligence at the edge, and together with a robustness principle— “Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send”— it was only right to do something similar from a legal, and analog perspective.

So you have expressions in the #MCPIF that talk about art, and culture; because to me, truth, and beauty can be created from ones, and zeros. This is why you have Universal Access to the Internet. This is why there are expressions in the #MCPIF that allow jailbreaking, and rooting of devices because to me, tinkering, pushing the boundaries of possibilities; the ability to cultivate curiosity, and ultimately, innovation is very important even if only 1 out of 10 kids do it. The future can be built by that one kid, and it is important that his possibility exist for that one kid.

From a fictional perspective, If you’ve ever read Batman, and see his desire to to build a better Batmobile? That’s exactly what this is about. If you’ve ever seen Iron Man, and Tony Stark was building his suit? That the itch that you can’t stop unless you scratch. That’s the same thing with ideas, and world shattering innovation— from Apple to Facebook to Google to Microsoft and everything in between. Each of their founders had an itch to scratch that they couldn’t stop until they scratched it, and scratched some more.

“What if X could be done like this? What if Y looked like this?”

This is all from my perspective, you have to understand. This is why I am glad my co-creators from democracy.net.ph agreed to put it there. This is why I hope that our politicians, and the public also accept all this. The Core of #MCPIF is about laying down this foundation for innovation, for growth through this perspective.

Open Government
The government launched data.gov.ph as part of its goal for better transparency in government.
The government launched data.gov.ph as part of its goal for better transparency in government.

There is a provision in the core of #MCPIF on Open Government. It is a proto-freedom of information act, and lays a foundational framework for the good work Data.gov.ph is. One of its salient feature is to require agencies to provide data in open standards format— text, comma-separated-values, and similar standard that is readily processable.

The Open Government provision (Section 13) came about because of a twitter discussion with Undersecretary Manolo Quezon, Journalist Jojo Malig, and members of @PHNetDems.

Jojo from his perspective wanted data to be easily parsed. PDF in the journalist perspective, for example, took too long to parsed— especially coming from the government’s disaster relief agency.

Undersecretary Manolo, and the good folks over at the Presidential Communications Development & Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) have been championing Open Government. PCDSPO together with Secretary Edwin Lacierda, and Deputy Press Secretary Abigail Valte have been championing Open Data in government as well.

The inclusion of Open Government into #MCPIF for me, is important because we’re talking about Internet Freedom here. What comes from Internet Freedom is the ability access to the global Internet as an open platform. This open platform was designed to be a place where one can innovate, learn, organize, and express oneself, and the idea that is Open Government runs parallel to this. We shouldn’t simply be paying lip service to transparency in government. There is much cynicism attached to “Daan Matuwid,” and for me, the work by people not only at PCDSPO that pushes for greater transparency in government is a good step towards the right direction. We can no longer afford to simply pay lip service. However slow the process is, going forward, using technology to bring readily available information to people is important especially with Big Data, Open Data, Freedom of Information Act in the pipeline. Laying the foundation of real internet Freedom is an important step in building towards transparency, and open government is part of that foundation.

Second step

While #MCPIF does have provisions regarding the amendment of the telecom act, and provisions on network neutrality, and such— all aimed at pushing not only for fair play in a free market, but to establish a clear framework for the future, it is just the first step.

While this was designed more as framework, it is important to take the next crucial step— establish a national broadband infrastructure plan— at least the first in a series of plans that culminate in the effective delivery of not just infrastructure— network rollouts— and such, but of research, and digital literacy.

It is presently clear that there is a need for a national broadband plan. What currently exists is an E-Government Master Plan— which is great— but is entirely focused on government, and government services. A national broadband infrastructure plan requires all the stakeholders to work together. It really needs a Multistakeholder governance model similar in instance as the Internet Engineering Task Force.

How to begin?

Broadband Tool Kit is a good place to start with research. It says about Government with regard to a national broadband plan:

“The government of the Republic of Korea, for example, was one of the early broadband leaders. It has developed six plans since the mid-1980s that have helped to shape broadband policy in the country. The Korea example shows that policy approaches can effectively move beyond network rollout and include research, manufacturing promotion, user awareness, and digital literacy. It also highlights the possibilities for sector growth based on long-term interventions focused predominantly on opportunity generation rather than on direct public investment.”

In a whitepaper published by Cisco and the International Telecommunications Union, they said:

“Research conducted for this report suggests that the introduction or adoption of a broadband plan is associated with 2.5% higher fixed broadband penetration, and 7.4% higher mobile broadband penetration on average.”

International Gateways
Submarine Cable Map
source: http://ansonalex.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/underwater-internet-cable-map.jpg?a17e84

Fiber-optic submarine cables represent points of failure. Undersea cables connecting the Philippines to the rest of the Internet originate in the Western Philippines, specifically in the region near or at Manila. In the event of a catastrophic failure due to natural disaster or war— this could cause a lot of problems.

It is without doubt, expensive. Whether it is engineeringly difficult— maybe impossible— or politically difficult to do— for example to setup cables from Davao to Australia; from Cebu to Guam or other parts of the country to another— is something I clearly have no answer for.

The same goes for proxies, exchanges, fiber within the Philippines’ territory, and so on.

Third step – Quality of Service

With regard to the NTC— there is a need for strong regulatory power, and strong regulatory desire. Testing of equipment, and clearly a need for consumer welfare protection that is currently absent, and have been absent for quite some time. In short, there should be fair play in the market place.

VAS or not to VAS

Clearly, there is also a problem with choosing VAS or not to VAS. The present debate on how slow the Internet is, rests on how this is answered. The requirement for congressional franchise to be an ISP should Internet be non-VAS will add a barrier for entry. Yet, the current situation where there are too few players simply because the cost to build your own network is just too astronomical is likewise a barrier.

A debate clearly needs to happen on what is best for the country. Policy is part of the problem, and this goes right smack into the middle of that.

Will introducing Cooperatives into the picture make the situation better? Will the government building IGFs, and licensing this to private corporations, and ISPs solve the competition problem?

How much bandwidth is the Philippines consuming— sending out to the world? How much money would it cost to build more submarine cables? Are there more cheaper alternatives? Here is a study from 2001 with regard to Internet costs in developing countries. What and how much would it take to give every subscriber sustained, reliable Internet?

Is it ethically wise for submarine cables to be owned by the government, or for bandwidth to be paid for by public funds— especially in light of Arab Spring where government can simply turn off the tap?

Is this better off handled by private corporations, but what policy should be made to increase competition in the market place to drive broadband penetration?

Will a privately run non-profit, but publicly funded corporation owning IGFs, running exchanges, buying bandwidth, and selling licenses to customers help alleviate the problem?

As you can see, the questions, and the picture is entirely complex.

Is there something else out there?

While the questions and the picture is complex. The tentative steps forward towards faster, more reliable Internet rests on: 1) the #MCPIF — the freedom doctrine; 2) a National Broadband Plan driven by a Multistakeholder governance model; 3) A Quality of Service law that spurs innovation, investment, prevent consumer exploitation, unfair pricing and breaches of privacy as well as minimizing cumbersome, confusing, and changing regulations. Lastly, this can be solved by the government, the private sector, and the public working with fairness, and equality— the right mix of policy.

Cocoy Dayao

Cocoy is the Chief Technology Officer of Lab Rats Technica, a Digital Consulting company that specialises in DevOps, iOS, and Web Apps, E-Commerce sites, Cybersecurity and Social Media consulting. He is a technology enthusiast, political junkie and social observer who enjoys a good cup of coffee, comic books, and tweets as @cocoy on twitter.

Cocoy is also the Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of the ProPinoy Project.

Cocoy considers himself to be Liberal.