President Duterte has made no secret of his disdain for the country’s telecommunications companies. He constantly targeted them in many public statements, demanding them to “do better” in his most recent SONA and, more recently, in a public address last September 28. However, threats and curses are as far as he has gone, as his administration has taken no action to incentivize, or force, telecommunications companies to improve services.
The problem lies in the government’s lack of vision and political will to improve the country’s information communication technology and remains heavily reliant on the private sector to keep us connected. But this dependency, as we have witnessed in the 26 years since the internet was introduced in the Philippines, generated debacle after debacle that really throws into question whether privatization really does bring quality, accessible internet like the government and corporations say it does.
The vast majority of the country’s submarine cable landing stations are in private hands. Worse, the two sole landing stations the government does own are being leased to Duterte crony Dennis Uy. This long-standing practice of cronyism and awarding control of public services to his friends has left multiple sectors in ruins over President Duterte’s years in office, and no amount of expletive-laden threats can change that.
Even outside the issue of cronyism, this administration has simply lacked the will to do what is needed when it matters most. Last year, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) rolled out its plans to have a nationwide internet backbone to ensure more accessible and affordable internet; even demanding a budget increase to Php 13.491 billion in 2021 as they also aim to cover the entire country, particularly rural areas.
However, the DICT’s Policy Guidelines on the Co-location and Sharing of Passive Telecommunication Tower Infrastructure for Macro Cell Sites, released in June, still explicitly relies on the private sector’s infrastructure to reach those rural areas. Even when the government’s own telecommunications agency rolls out a sweeping plan to improve internet connections, it still relies heavily on the private sector that is then allowed to make profit as they please.
The results of such a model have been clear even before the pandemic. The Digital Quality of Life Survey for 2020, measuring telecommunications quality across 85 countries, ranks the Philippines 67th in electronic infrastructure, 79th in affordability, and 84th (which is second-last) in internet quality.
Beyond numbers and rankings, the agonizing situation faced by students and teachers should be enough proof that the private-led telecommunications industry is simply broken. The lives of at least four students have already been lost to poor Internet connection, and more will only come if the present set up remains.
The Duterte administration should have seen this coming. The signs were there from the start. It pretty much surrendered control of one of the most important goods that the public would need in this day and age, allowing big suits to fatten their wallets at the expense of the Filipino people and laying waste to Philippine telecommunications.
To top it all off, even knowing that, it has still done nothing to prevent students, teachers, and school workers from having to wade through this garbage fire in the disaster that is pandemic education. It allowed a priceless industry to slip out of its hands, and now, all that remains on their hands is blood.
In an environment where no internet literally means no education, internet connection must absolutely be treated as a basic human right. Services that are a basic human right, therefore, cannot be provided by massive private companies in exchange for a profit. The education of millions of Filipinos is in the control of private capital.
It is now the burden of the government — the administrators of the people’s taxes, to ensure a telecommunications industry that is competitive, quality, and not profit-oriented, which would be more attainable through nationalizing the telecommunications industry. Beyond stopgap measures like providing subsidies for internet and load, more wholesale changes are required to achieve such a goal.
Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan (SPARK) continues to demand the nationalization of the telecommunications industry as the first step towards recognizing internet connection as a human right. If he had made numerous threats to telecommunications companies to give undue advantage to his Chinese backers and cronies alike, he must now make good on his threats and act in the interests of the people. ###
SPARK is a youth activist organization that spearheads the campaign for ‘academic freeze’. SPARK demands that President Duterte issue an executive order to initiate an academic freeze until January 2021 for the government to better prepare for the resumption of classes.