I was asked last week to give my thoughts on Senator Ralph Recto’s Senate Bill 2232, or the Free Metro Manila WiFi bill on TV5’s news program “Reaksyon.” You can watch that segment in this link.
In his explanatory note for the bill, Recto pointed out: “For the Philippines to further establish itself as an emerging economy, a public broadband, internet infrastructure must be in place beginning with NCR.”
“Allowing free wireless internet access in key public places in NCR means providing access to the underserved in our society, including getting low-income people online,” he also said.
Senator Recto’s proposal is pretty straightforward. Within two years after his proposal becomes a law (that’s a big if, of course), the following areas should be designated as free WiFi hot spots:
A. All national and local government offices;
B. Public health centers and hospitals;
C. Public Elementary and High Schools, and State Colleges and Universities;
D. Public Parks
E. Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Tenninals I, II, III, and IV);
F. Public Libraries;
G. Tollways and Expressways (North Luzon Exressway, South Luzon Expressway, Metro Manila Skyway, and
H. Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) and other national roads;
I. Public transport terminals;
J. Port of Manila; and
K. Rail Transit Stations (LRT Line 1, MRT Line 2, MRT Line 3, and PNR Southrail).
It will be hard to argue against the bill based on its supposed intent. It is true that majority of Filipinos are still not connected to the Internet. One website, InternetLiveStats.com, pegged the country’s Internet penetration rate at only 39.4%.
This does not take into account the cost of subscribing to an Internet service provider (our family, for example, pays P1500 monthly for this). So in short, any effort to broaden the public’s access to the Internet should be welcomed.
However, we cannot ignore the other aspects of his proposal. For one, this doesn’t address the problem of mediocre Internet service in the country.
As everyone should know by now, the Philippines has the dubious distinction of having the slowest Internet speed in the entire Southeast Asia. In a previous post, I discussed that the prevailing monopoly in the ISP industry is largely to blame for this.
The second issue that needs to be settled, assuming Recto’s bill gets approved, is the question of who will provide the necessary Internet service. In section 5 of SB 2232, he explained: “These hot spots will be made available using initially the services of existing commercial internet service providers (lSPs) until such time that a national broadband system has been installed.”
This is not the first time that the idea of having a national broadband network has been raised. In fact, we already came close to having it during the term of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when her government entered into a $329.5 million dollar deal with Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE Corporation.
Now, when we hear the words “NBN-ZTE deal,” we don’t think about the merits and demerits of the said project. Instead, what we have in mind is the corruption scandal that it triggered. (Read more about the controversy in this link.)
The government naturally will have to deal with telecommunication giants if Recto’s proposed project will indeed push through. How sure are we that the nightmare of the NBN-ZTE deal won’t happen again?
The last point I made during the interview is that giving free WiFi access to Metro Manila residents will likely lead to the service being abused. Isn’t it that there are those who stay in Starbucks outlets for several hours just browsing the Internet?
Is the government ready to handle thousands of people who will troop in public places every single day for the free WiFi? That’s a potential security nightmare.