After Senate nod, House set to pass free public Wi-Fi bill in May

After hurdling the Senate with a final vote of 18-0-0, the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act is seen clearing the House of Representatives in May.

Photo credit: cityofcauayan.gov.ph

Photo credit: cityofcauayan.gov.ph

This is according to House majority leader Rodolfo Fariñas, who said that the free Internet access counterpart bill in the House is set to be approved on second reading on March 15 and on final reading when session resumes on May 2.

On Monday, March 13, the Senate approved the bill, which seeks to provide free access to Internet services in public places in the country such as:

• National and local government offices
• Public basic education institutions
• State universities and colleges
• Public hospitals and health centers
• Public parks, plazas, and libraries
• Public airports and seaports
• Public transport terminals

“Students can now easily access the Internet for their studies; families can now frequently contact their loved ones abroad; and public government services requiring Internet connectivity can now be accessed by many,” said Pangilinan, principal author of the bill.

The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) will lead the implementation of the program, the setting standards and qualifications in determining the public spaces and government offices to be included and prioritized.

“Providing free wireless Internet access to our public is a step toward modernizing our country’s Internet connectivity. We thank Sen. Bam Aquino for pushing for the speedy passage of this landmark piece of legislation in the Senate),” Pangilinan said.

The senators who voted in favor of the passage of the bill were Senators Aquino, Binay, Drilon, Escudero, Ejercito, Gatchalian, Gordon, Honasan, Hontiveros, Lacson, Pacquiao, Pangilinan, Poe, Recto, Sotto, Trillanes, Villar, and Zubiri.

“Today marks the era that we, Filipinos, finally commence the march to digital age,” said Sen. Ralph Recto, in explaining his vote for the approval of the measure.

But Recto, one of the original proponents and now the co-sponsor of the measure, stressed that “the benchmark in gauging effectivity is not just the number of Wi-Fi spots but also Internet speed.”

“If Internet is a human right, then Wi-FI is a basic public service. But for it to become one, the hindrances which bar its full enjoyment by the people must first be removed,” the senator added.

It was Recto who, in 2014, moved that the Senate increase the budget allocated for the Free Public Wi-Fi Project of the DOTC’s Information and Communications Technology Office (ICTO), the precursor of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

“It is my pleasure to finally vote on a bill which I first filed in May 2014,” Recto said.

“Although the Free National Wi-Fi Project is now in full swing, by virtue of another legislative route — through three General Appropriations Acts, including this year’s – still, the best way to guarantee its continuation is through a charter,” he explained.

By end of the year, it is projected that 13,024 sites covered by 18 Points of Presence in 1,489 towns and 145 under the Free Public Wi-Fi Project are up and running.

The funding came from the P4.8 billion appropriated since 2015.

“To firewall this public service from being knocked down by changing political winds — to prevent the plug from being pulled — the passage of this bill is required,” Recto stressed.

“More so that much remains to be done. For this year and next, 1,880 public elementary schools, 2,688 public high schools, and 682 state colleges are targeted for connection,” he said.

Overall, the project aims to roll out 23,631 sites by 2018, expanding it four-fold to 100,349 by 2026.

“Others may deride free public Wi-Fi hotspots as populist-driven conveniences. Sadly, those who embrace this falsehood have not been able to fully grasp the empowering potential of ICT,” Recto said.

“Because the only way to view free Wi-Fi hotspots, my friends, is to treat them for what they are – as a form of ‘liberation technology,’” he added.

Recto noted that while trolls, fake news purveyors, and manufacturers of weapons of mass distractions ride on the same technology platform, “the damage to individual brains or collective consciousness they inflict is far smaller than the greater good that ICT brings.”

“For every troll farm, there are millions of farmers whose lives have been made better by ICT. The truth is mass Wi-Fi services form part of the ICT solutions which can ease the pain caused by the many problems we confront today, if not make them totally go away,” the senator pointed out.

With the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act, Recto expressed belief that the big government investments in free Wi-Fi spots would nudge forward the upstream reforms in the telecoms sector all Filipinos would like to see.

“In this bill are provisions that will improve Internet speed, better broadband services, slash the red tape that retards ICT growth. If we want a thousand Wi-Fi spots to bloom, we must cut the thicket of regulations choking its growth,” the senator explained.

“Permitting problems encountered by DICT contractors and telcos in putting up facilities must be ended in one declogging sweep of administrative bottlenecks,” he added.

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