Internet Governance Public Policy

Is this the start of a new digital era for the Philippines?

The past month or so has seen a flurry of activities in the Philippines, particularly on the ICT and Internet front, and these have attracted much media attention.

Apart from the highly publicized recent election of a new President and Vice-President, the outgoing President signed into law Republic Act 10844, which created the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). More recently, the two biggest telcos in the country (PLDT and Globe) finally signed a domestic Internet peering agreement.

The issue of poor Internet services in the Philippines has been a long-standing issue — so much so that it also became an election issue. (And speaking of the elections — the Commission on Elections itself suffered a data breach in the lead-up to the elections that left voter data exposed — highlighting the need for greater vigilance when holding the personal data of individuals.)

The possible entry of a third major telco in the Philippines market was something that many were looking forward to. There was much promise of an improvement in both services and cost with the new telco planning to rapidly deploy mobile broadband.

However, that possibility fell apart as the San Miguel-Telstra joint venture fizzled out. In May, mobile spectrum that had been secured for the third telco was acquired by Globe and PLDT — in itself a somewhat peculiar development. One would have thought the spectrum would have been returned to the regulator, and then perhaps re-auctioned, rather than two dominant incumbents acquiring spectrum that would basically lock out any possibility of a third player entering the market. I do wonder out aloud if the Competition Commission has — or will have — something to say on this.

The domestic Internet peering agreement between PLDT and Globe has been a long time in coming — several years in fact. As the two largest service providers, this peering should do much to stop Internet traffic from one telco’s network having to pass through an overseas transit point to enter the other telco’s network. The net effect should be an improvement in local Internet traffic performance — but there is a bit more that needs to be done.

Over the last several months, the Internet Society together with government agencies has been facilitating workshops in the Philippines to help support the use of a neutral Internet Exchange. It would be good to see both the major telcos fully connecting to PHOpenIX so that all service providers — and thus all users in the Philippines — can benefit from keeping local traffic local. This can only but further help the Internet ecosystem in the Philippines. (PHOpenIX is a non-profit discussion group operated by the Philippine Department of Science and Technology that “allows the exchanges of Internet traffic in a free-market environment among local internet and data service providers.”)

Till the establishment of DICT, the Philippines has not had a focused national level entity that looks after ICT and Internet issues — various functions have been carried out by a number of different agencies, offices and departments over the years. Agencies such as the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), the National Privacy Commission (NPC) and the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordination Center (CICC) will all now be coordinated by DICT.

It is expected the creation of DICT will help provide greater focus on the role of the Internet and ICTs for national development — including underserved and unserved areas — as well as help provide a cohesive integrated approach in dealing with policy and regulatory issues in the Philippines.

With around 40% Internet penetration, there is much headroom for growth in the Philippines particularly for locations outside the main urban areas. As the ASEAN economies work on transitioning towards a digital economy, the role of the Internet will be critical. Even more so will be the need for an Internet that is accessible, affordable and trusted.

With a large Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, high literacy rates and an educated work force, the Philippines is well positioned to become a major contributor to the regional and global digital economy. Many of the pieces required to achieve this are slowly falling into place — the challenge now is to take full advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead.

This piece was first published in BusinessWorld Philippines in June 2016.

Community Projects IETF Open Internet Standards

IETF Outreach in Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines 2016

The initial idea for the IETF Outreach initiative came to me during my first IETF, when I noticed that there were very few people attending/participating in the IETF meeting who were from Asia-Pacific outside of Japan, China and India.

Yes, the Asia-Pacific is a region of great contrast – but in today’s age, what binds the countries together is the Internet and the value it provides on many dimensions. All are interested in furthering the use of online technologies, a secure Internet and maximizing the opportunities the Internet provides.

Seeing the limited participation from many parts of Asia-Pacific, I got to thinking of what we could do to change that. After discussing with my colleagues and many well-wishers from the Internet community, I started putting together a plan of action on how this initiative could take shape.

With the very kind support of the APRICOT-APAN 2015 Executive Committee and the Internet Society Asia-Pacific Bureau who provided funding and programmatic support, I was able to see my initiative come to life with the IETF Outreach programme being implemented in Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines through the first half of 2016.

Our outreach has been to students and professionals through technical community meetings, ICT community-operated workspaces, tertiary institutions, technical/professional associations, private companies and network operator groups.

We reached out not only in the capital cities but other cities too e.g. Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia with a population of 2.8 million and an extended metropolitan area of 9 million inhabitants and, Cebu City, one of the most densely populated urban centres in the Philippines where the population is less than 23 years old. 

Yes, we had some challenges – and a tight timeline – but with the support of the Internet Society Asia-Pacific Team, and our partners in the three countries, we were able to deliver localized programmes that generated much interest and helped with spreading greater awareness of what the IETF does and how one could get involved in the Internet standards-making process.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance and commitment of our country mentors and partners – Yudho and Garin in Indonesia, Harish and Olivia in Singapore, Nestor and Benjz in the Philippines – who helped us achieve our goals.

Through their efforts, we were able to reach nearly 800 people over 13 events in the three countries – and we are not done yet – with more to come! We already expect at least 2 Internet Drafts to come out of this exercise, which is really promising and an early endorsement of our efforts!

Development Growing the Internet Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)

IXPs level up in emerging Asia-Pacific

There are currently some 80 or so active Internet exchange points (IXP) operating in Asia-Pacific, according to a database maintained by Packet Clearing House. These are in various stages of development, having as little as 2 to as many as 170 participants, but more than half are concentrated in developed markets like Japan and New Zealand. Most emerging economies in the region only have one or two, and more than 20 countries—most of them in the Pacific—do not have a single IXP.

We have written at length about the benefits of having a carrier-neutral IXP. Costs and delays associated with having to rely on international transit providers are reduced when ISPs can freely exchange local traffic in a local facility—much like using the local post to have your package delivered straight to your cousin in the next village, instead of having it shipped out of and back into the country before it reaches their doorstep. What follows is a more competitive playing field, especially for smaller ISPs, and better quality of service overall. Having more direct routes is becoming even more relevant as more Internet users access bandwidth-heavy content, such as videos, or services like VoIP, which has a low tolerance for latency.

But if IXPs bring in such good gains, why aren’t there more of them? Proportions vary, but pundits like to say that building an IXP is 80% human and 20% technical engineering. It can take as little as US$ 5,000 to put together the physical infrastructure—some routers, switches and cables– but it takes a lot more time and effort to have competing ISPs come together to share a common resource for mutual advantage.

There are different ways by which local communities build momentum. In the Philippines, it was a small ISP that took the plunge and connected to the country’s then newly established open Internet exchange, PhOpenIX at a time when others remained skeptical of its value. In September last year, we helped the Department of Science and Technology-Advanced Science and Technology Institute (DOST-ASTI), which runs PhOpenIX, launch a second IXP in Cebu, in the Visayas region, by which time the IX in Manila, the capital, was interconnecting 43 networks, including major carriers, universities, cable operators, state agencies, hospitals and broadcast companies. In Thailand, a younger neutral IX, BKNIX, which we helped set-up in 2014, is on a similar trajectory.

Now nine years old, PhOpenIX is in many ways leveling up. It increased its capacity from 1Gb to 10Gb in 2015, and has attracted six DNS root server mirrors, as well as Google and Akamai caches—which now comprise the bulk of its traffic. It is reaching out to partners, both in the Philippines and abroad, and is looking into more sustainable funding and governance mechanisms—the focus of our follow-up session at last month’s PHNOG conference.

But with its expansion comes growing pains that many IXPs in the region, and around the world, may be familiar with. The incumbent has recently agreed to host a third PhOpenIX node and peer with the government network, but prefers to negotiate bilateral arrangements with other ISPs, a move that stakeholders fear would undermine trust in an ecosystem where all members have participated on equal terms—with everyone peering with everyone else—and could set a precedent for other operators to follow suit.

The local community is undoubtedly keen to have the incumbent, which currently controls more than 70% of the market, onboard, but it is more keen to have PhOpenIX growing as it has been—open, neutral and non-discriminatory–and to reap the many rewards that these bring, with or without the biggest player in town.

*Photo credit: Benjz Sevilla, Board Member, ISOC Philippines Chapter

To learn more about creating an Internet Exchange Point in your region, please visit our IXP Toolkit.

Growing the Internet Human Rights Women in Tech

National consultation highlights gender digital divide in the Philippines

Last month at the United Nations in New York, world leaders agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals which countries must strive to carry out in the next 15 years. Like its predecessor, the 3rd MDG, the 5th SGD aims to achieve gender equality worldwide through an extensive list of targets, and this time with an explicit pledge to harness ICT use to empower women.

The Philippines is well positioned to lead the charge towards a more gender-equal Internet in the Asia-Pacific region. It has long been one of the most gender-equal nations in the world, and the only one in Asia-Pacific to consistently rank among the top 10 countries with the least gender disparity, according to the World Economic Forum.  Significantly, it is one of the very few countries in the region where women have equal, or close to equal, participation in the technical and scientific fields, and where women outnumber men—albeit just marginally—in having access to the Internet.

But the Philippines is also home to a significant number of people for whom ICT adoption is not an immediate priority. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, with some 70% of women estimated to be in a state of survival. Last week, a national consultation held by the Foundation of Media Alternatives and supported by the Internet Society showed that just as the Internet promises to help uplift women’s lives, it may also exacerbate or even create new forms of socio-economic inequalities, even among women themselves.

While urban-based participants at the two-day workshop noted the barriers posed by the country’s slow and expensive Internet, those from Magindanao, a culture-rich but conflict-ridden area in southern Philippines, spoke of a complex array of restrictions standing in the way of increased ICT use. Lack of power in many villages mean that women need to walk for hours to the nearest town to charge their mobile phones, while periodic evacuations due to ongoing clashes have created communities that are always on the move, settling in makeshift structures, thus making it difficult to equip schools, for instance, with computers and Internet connectivity.

Where there is Internet access, some have observed a general discomfort with unfamiliar technology, especially among rural residents. One woman said that in her village, elderly midwives find it more challenging to transition to writing their reports online, and tend to revert back to using paper once the connectivity cuts off. Another shared that locals are hesitant to try a peculiar-looking device, even if it is meant for public use, without someone first teaching them how it works.

Such stories highlight the importance of integrating digital literacy training with Internet connectivity provision.  In low-income areas where women are more prone to sexual exploitation and trafficking, rights groups worry that women may be learning to use the Internet for purposes that make them more vulnerable to online and offline abuse. Digital skills training must thus not only be about how one can connect to the Internet, but also include ways by which women can use it productively for self-development.

In a study conducted by Google, women in the Philippines cited lack of time, skills and income as the biggest obstacles to Internet use. It also found the community as the most trusted source of Internet knowledge among women, with 74% preferring to receive instructions from friends and family, over say, a formal course in a group setting.  This means that not only must policies promote alternative and more affordable modes of Internet access but also flexible approaches to education and learning, such as train the trainer sessions for women owners of coin-operated Internet kiosks or mobile phone credit resellers, who could more easily pass the knowledge on to their customers and acquaintances.

The Philippine government’s Tech4Ed programme, to be deployed alongside its free Wi-Fi project, promises to provide practical digital skills training particularly to out of school youth, senior citizens, women and indigenous people across the country.  But while women in the country continue to advocate for gender mainstreaming in national policy, many of the solutions sought at the workshop were aimed at a more localised level, from new ordinances to curtail cyber prostitution to cultivating more technical knowledge in remote villages to enable them to build their own wireless networks. Others are pushing for a portion of the budget given to barangays, the smallest unit of governance in the Philippines, to be allotted to hands-on digital skills training for women and girls.

To bring more women online, it is crucial to first identify the groups and sectors who continue to be offline. And from last week’s consultation, it is becoming clearer that the next wave of initiatives to extend Internet access must be targeted to, as a Web Foundation executive put it, those without the status or power to claim it. For countries like the Philippines, this means women with disabilities, those in rural areas, informal sector workers, the urban poor, and members of indigenous communities.