After 20 years, PH Internet still ‘a puzzle waiting to be assembled’

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The Philippine Internet infrastructure is still a big conundrum two decades after it was first brought online, according to the man who helped get it up and running in the first place.

Dr. William "Bill" Torres

“It’s a puzzle still waiting to be assembled,” said Dr. William Torres at the Cyberpress Forum held at the New World Hotel in Makati City on Thursday, March 27, in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the day the Philippines first officially connected to the Internet.

“What we’ve been doing so far is just building pieces of it, but we need to know how to put it all together.”

Torres is touted as the ?Father of the Philippine Internet? for his role in bringing the country online in the 1990s, beginning with a humble 64kbps serial link to US-based Sprint Communications in the early morning of March 29, 1994.

Benjie Tan, the man credited for making the connection on that fateful day, agrees.

Marami pa rin tayong kailangan gawin,” he said at the forum.

A fourth player

Torres reasoned that there are only three players in today’s local ICT market: telecommunications companies, ?gadget providers,? and consumers.

“The biggest challenge for the Philippines is to pay attention to its infrastructure components and to make them work together: we need a fourth player (to do that),” he said.

He thus reiterated the need for an overarching government body to bring everything together — the Department of ICT (DICT).

“The task of the DICT must be to bring ICT to the mainstream. In the same way that we think of water, electricity, and other utilities as essential, so too must we also think of ICT in the long-term,” Torres said.

For its part, the government has historically seen the DICT as “an unnecessary bureaucracy”, abolishing the existing Commission on ICT (CICT) — what would have been the DICT’s precursor — in favor of a more meager ICT Office under the auspices of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

Current state of Philippine technology

Despite economic setbacks and natural calamities, there have been “significant increases” in Internet usage, driven largely by rural users, according to Globe Telecom’s vice-president for broadband product development and management, Fernando “Cocoy” Claravall IV.

In urban areas, which still lead the pack in terms of technology adoption, Claravall noted that mobile devices already far outpace desktops as the means of choice for connecting to the Internet.

Globe claims that, as of the fourth quarter of 2013 alone, urban device ownership was up to 3.38 million smartphone users, 3.08 million laptop users, and 1.79 million tablet users, versus 2.03 million desktop users.

Moreover, Claravall said that this dynamic uptake in mobile connectivity has led to the Philippines becoming the second top Internet user in Asia next to Indonesia.

This has, in turn, led to a scramble to ramp up Globe’s Internet capacity from 250 Gbps to 300 Gbps by end-2014, in expectation of further local market growth.

“And that’s just us. If you add our competitors, isipin mo na lang kung gaano kalaki yan,? Claravall mused, in a rare tip-of-the-hat to Globe’s rivals, PLDT and Smart Communications.

The future ‘Internet of Things’

But it’s the future of connectivity itself that looks the most promising to ICT companies.

For example, connectivity is essential to the inner workings of the now-famous — some might say infamous — Bitcoin online currency: it runs on a system that essentially allows people to collaborate on the processing of online monetary transactions.

But Bitcoin is more than just a distributed payment network, according to Lasse Birk Olesen, chief product officer of BuyBitcoin.ph. The decentralized yet secure database technology at its heart has numerous uses, from messaging to file transfers.

Faith Mijares, mobile product marketing manager at LG Electronics Philippines, noted the inverse relationship of rich multimedia experience to technological cost.

She pointed out that, as mobile phones become capable of communicating more kinds of data than just voice and text, the cost of the technology itself continues to plummet and becomes more affordable.

“Imagine how 2G mobile phones back in the day could cost as much as P30,000,” she said, adding that, for the same price today, one could get an exponentially more powerful and more immersive device.

“We’re looking forward to better smartphones and we’re looking forward to getting these technologies there,” she added.

Internet access: A human right

According to Claravall, better and smaller mobile data technology paves the way for connecting more aspects of our daily lives to the virtual world: everything from heartbeats to home security — the so-called “Internet of Things”.

“We will have the ability to have connected homes, all using Internet infrastructure. The number one application we see will be home security,” he said.

It’s this emerging connective pervasiveness that makes Internet access so vital, underscoring the need for better Philippine ICT infrastructure, according to Torres.

“In fact,” he said, “broadband Internet access has become a right of all! If you don’t have access, you’re at a disadvantage.”

Torres’ sentiments echoed the 2011 UN Human Rights report declaring Internet access as a human right.

‘Exciting times ahead’

According to ICT Office deputy executive director for industry development Monchito Ibrahim, who also spoke at the forum, the latest ICT trends in the country specifically aim to address this situation.

He pointed out that the impending broadcast industry-wide shift from analog to digital technology could enable broadband Internet access by anyone within reach of any commercial TV or radio station — practically nationwide, at this point.

“It’s an exciting time for everyone, shifting from analog to digital broadcasting, because it will free up so many frequencies,” Ibrahim said.

The government is also looking to take advantage of unused broadcast frequencies — the so-called “TV White Space” or TVWS — for deploying public Internet connections and other services, such as weather warnings and even healthcare access.

Unlike ordinary WiFi signals, TV, and radio broadcast waves can pass through obstacles and carry much farther, making them suitable for these purposes.

‘Not just consumers’

While Torres lauded the government’s efforts, he also said that there’s still so much more that needs to be done.

“We’d like to bring people from lower (economic) classes into the fold. What we should be watching out for (are ways to) allow communities to share resources. Let’s not just be buyers. Let’s grow our wealth on our own ICT (capability),” he said.

He explained that well-orchestrated ICT infrastructure can help defray the cost of Internet connectivity by efficiently distributing access across the population.

“If you have good infrastructure, you can share expensive connections, such as in a remote barangay. That’s the purpose of a national (ICT) infrastructure,” he explained.

“The analogy is transportation: How can we bring things from place to place, how can we transact business, if we don’t have good transportation?”

The answer to that question, he said, is the key to finally putting together the growing puzzle that is the Philippine ICT landscape. — TJ Dimacali

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