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Democratizing Internet Access through the use of Satellite Technology: A Social Imperative, A Common Good

Dec 30, 2020 | Advocacy, All Post

Introduction

The Philippines has arguably one of the highest number of social media and online platform users in Southeast Asia. With the NCOVID-19 pandemic shifting almost all forms of communication and transactions to the online world practically overnight, this number has doubled or tripled. In the education sector, we have witnessed the shift from face-to-face instruction to online distance learning.

That means efficient internet connectivity is essential today.  Unfortunately, the Philippines ranks as one of the lowest in terms of internet connectivity. In a speed test conducted by OOKLA sometime in May of 2020 — a time when most schools were preparing for their school continuity plans — the Philippines ranked as follows: For Fixed Broadband, the Philippines had a maximum download speed of 22.31 mbps and a maximum upload speed of 21.50 mbps. The global speed average however, was pegged at 76.94 mbps for downloads and 41.09 mbps for uploads. For Mobile broadbands, the Philippines had a maximum download speed of 14.23 mbps and a maximum upload speed of 5.61 mbps. This is a far cry from the global speed average with downloads of 33.71 mbps and an upload speed of 10.89 mbps. A more accurate picture is even captured by the Measurement Lab (MLab) Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT) Results[1]. The NDT is a single stream performance measurement of a connection’s capacity for “bulk transport” (as defined in IETF’s RFC 3148). NDT measures “single stream performance” or “bulk transport capacity”. The NDT reports not just upload and download speeds but also latency metrics, where the data collected is more granular and comprehensive. Per MLab NDT reports as of June 2020 – at a time when only a few schools have started online classes – this is the face of our country’s internet connection:  our Download speed is only at 3.41 Mbps, our Upload speed only at 2.64 Mbps.[1] This dismal rate logically is even slower when classes formally opened for other schools in the succeeding months, with students and teachers utilizing the available internet access at the same time.

[1] The NDT was Created by group of teams from the following organizations: Code for Science & Society, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Google Inc., Princeton University’s PlanetLab. (“Internet Democracy and Rights” Powerpoint presentation – Mr. Raul Vincent Lumapas, ADDU)

Ironically, while it does have one of the highest number of social media and online platform users in Southeast Asia, access to internet connection is also not equitably distributed across the country. According to the Department of ICT’s 2019 National ICT Household Survey, barangays in the BARMM have the poorest access to broadband infrastructure, with 87.2% of those surveyed not having access to a cellular tower and 99.1% without access to fiber optic cable.

It is the submission of the Davao Association of Catholic Schools, a regional association of 71 Catholic schools[2], thatpublic policy must change to immediately enable greater connectivity and speed – not next year but this year. At a time when education, health consultations, business meetings and government transactions are conducted online, government must either provide or allow greater access to internet connections – not only by insisting that  the existing telco duopoly serve its publics more efficiently, but making use of satellite technology especially in the remote areas of the country where fixed broadband internet connections are rare, weak or simply not available.

Because online classes have begun and require healthy interactivity between teachers and students, we cannot wait till next year.  Better connectivity must be provided or enabled now.

[2] Ibid.
[3] In a recent survey conducted by the DACS, with 56 out of its 71 schools responding, only 12.5% have resorted to purely online instruction as an alternative mode of delivery. The survey also reveals that online learning was not the preferred delivery mode because 46.42% encounter weak signal or no internet connectivity in their area. The survey also reveals that 39.28% of the respondents report that 75% of their teachers and students have internet access problems.     

I.

Employing Satellite Technology is the perfect complement to existing telcos that offer internet connection.

Government need not allocate a huge budget for fiber-optic cables and towers. What is most urgently needed is the creation of an enabling environment that would facilitate the use of existing and available satellite technology in telecommunications.

This would entail, primarily, the amendment of the current policy contained in Executive Order No. 467 (1998) a.k.a. “Providing for a National Policy on the Operation and Use of International Satellite Communications in the Country.”

At present, EO 467 permits enfranchised telecommunication companies as well as broadcast companies to have direct access to international fixed satellite systems, subject to NTC authorization and guidelines[1]. The DACS supports the position of the Better Broadband Alliance (BBA) which calls for amendments of EO 467 to allow Internet service providers and value-added service (VAS) providers to access satellites directly and build and operate broadband networks using satellite technology, sans any congressional franchise. A proposed draft EO crafted by the BBA will amend the current satellite policy contained in EO 467 (1998), will help promote inclusive access to Internet and facilitate inclusive access to online education. With the support and approval of the President of this proposed draft EO, these envisioned changes can immediately and effectively address connectivity issues confronting online education today.

[4] Section 1 a EO 467.

II.

Allowing the use of Satellite Technology broadens access to the internet, especially in remote areas of the country. This spells more benefits to the public in terms of education, telehealth, governance, public participation, etc.

There are at least a dozen high-throughput satellites in space ready to serve the Philippines today. Using satellite technology will allow for connection even in the remotest and geographically isolated schools immediately, especially in places with no wired networks or low cell site density.[1]

The applications for this technology is not just confined to education. Utilizing satellite technology would be a very useful tool in assisting medical professionals working in the remote barangays via “teleconsults” – whereby on-site community doctors receive useful expert medical opinions from specialists through videoconferences. At a time when COVID-19 has drastically trimmed the ranks of health frontliners, this would enable the medical professionals to serve remote communities without physically leaving their clinics/hospital duties.

[5] Position Paper of the Better Broadband Alliance.

An Urgent Request to the President

Stable, reliable, and fast internet connectivity across the country is a social imperative that must be addressed by the government now. With the COVID19 pandemic that paralyzed all face-to-face transactions and classes and forcing the shift to online learning, internet connection is not merely a luxury afforded to the few, it is now a necessity. Government must therefore see to it that internet connectivity is efficient and accessible to all.

The most practical and immediate solution is readily available – satellite technology. It only necessitates an amendment of Executive Order No. 467. We respectfully request our President to act on this now.

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