Press Release
December 14, 2016

Free WiFI is 'Liberation Technology' Which Must Prod Urgent Telecom Reforms
Co-Sponsorship Speech
Free Wifi Act
Senate Minority Leader Ralph G. Recto
14 December 2016

When the Senate first convened in a rented house near Malacañang 100 years ago, its 24 members were summoned by telegram or by post which took days to arrive.

Communication was so bad that a Navy boat had to be dispatched from Zamboanga to inform and fetch Senator Buto from Jolo.

So it came as no surprise that among the first measures tackled by members of the first Philippine Senate was how to install a string of wireless telegraph stations across the archipelago.

By 1919, due to appropriations authorized by the legislature, the first wireless stations were up and running in Puerto Princesa, Jolo, Zamboanga, Davao, Malabang in Lanao, and San Jose in Mindoro.

It was also during that year that the first automatic telephone system came into operation in Manila.

One hundred years later, here we are in the Senate, still grappling with the unending challenge on how to enable our people to communicate with each other in a way that is fast, cheap and reliable.

The technology may have changed, the copper wires of yesteryears have been replaced by fiber optics, and the smartphone that fits snugly in our pocket is a telegram station-phone booth-cinema house-TV-computer rolled into one.

And while we have been able to talk to a man standing on the moon and send commands to a satellite 18 billion kilometers away in space, here on earth, in this country, many people are still on the wrong side of the digital divide, unable to enjoy the full benefits of ICT.

Which is sad because broadband ought to be the third utility, after water and power. The UN itself has proclaimed internet access a basic human right.

So the above is the apt justification for this bill. For the sovereign to enjoy this right. And use it as a tool in the pursuit of employment, education, happiness, and to combat ignorance, fear, poverty and hunger.

Others may deride free public WiFi hotspots as populist-driven conveniences. Sadly, those who embrace this falsehood have not been able to fully grasp the empowering potential of ICT.

Because the only way to view free WiFi hotspots, my friends, is to treat them for what they are - as a form of "liberation technology."

Yes, trolls, fake news purveyors, and manufacturers of weapons of mass distractions ride on the same technology platfom, but the damage to individual brains or collective consciousness they inflict is far smaller than the greater good that ICT brings.

For every troll farm, there are millions of farmers whose lives have been made better by ICT.

And in schools, the online education students get, hopefully, would build up their intellectual resistance to ignorance being aggressively peddled.

This bill was envisioned to create WiFi hotspots to do social good, and not for the sole purpose of allowing anyone to post unli- Instagram photos or selfies on FB.

These will be set up in public hospitals so that if you're the son of an OFW in Italy, you can update your mom, via Viber, on the recovery of a loved one who has been stricken ill. Or if the hospital staff would like to transmit a patient's data, then there's a facility for that.

These will be set up in schools to enrich learning so that both teachers and students could tap into the infinite sources of knowledge available online. And in libraries, to promote reading.

These will be set up in airports so that the loud brass band waiting for you would be advised to keep it down because your flight is delayed as usual.

These will be set up in MRT stations so you can message your hot date with sad emoticons that you will be late because one of the last straggling coaches of MRT has broken down again.

These will be set up in municipal halls so that if you're applying for a license or permit in one of the offices, and you forgot to bring one requirement, a photocopy can be immediately emailed to you.

These will be set up in public offices with the largest clientele and the longest queues so that their inconvenience won't be aggravated by a missing document which can henceforth be transmitted--but the real reason, actually, is that one of the things that can pacify a mob waiting to happen is free WiFi.

These will be set up in trading centers so that farmers will be apprised of market developments so they can get the best money out of their produce.

These will be set up in police stations so when distress calls come in by text, mas mabilis pa sila sa alas kwatro, at hindi sila darating bukas na ng alas kwatro.

These will be set up in the planned network of one-stop-shop centers for OFWs, so if they'll need documents from other offices, or from their waiting employers, they can just punch these letters into their phones: "PM me these pls."

Mass WiFi services form part of the ICT solutions which can ease the pain caused by the many problems we confront today, if not make them totally go away.

If roads are clogged with traffic, then the information highway provides a detour. That way energy is saved, pollution is reduced, and mass sanity is preserved.

Kung ma-traffic, mag-telecommute. Kung malayo ang ospital, ang doktor ay napapalapit sa pamamagitan ng tele-medicine. Kung malayo ang paaralan, may distance learning na sa computer pinapadaan.

In the same way that need is the mother of invention, or demand ushers in efficiency, or mass use triggers innovation, it is hoped that big government investments in free WiFi spots would nudge forward the upstream reforms in the telecoms sector we all would like to see.

This begins with improving Internet speed.

How come that it is faster in the ruins of Aleppo? Or it races in Afghanistan in the land of the Taliban while here in our Senate offices, in this texting capital of the world, it crawls, that downloads trickle in Tetris speed?

Internet penetration is high but speed is low. 60 million out of 101 million Pinoys have some sort of connection.

Four in 10 cellphone users have broadband subscription, compensating for the low 3.5 percent fixed-line subscription rate.

Yet we are oppressed by the 7th slowest broadband (3G, 4G) speed in the world.

What are these reforms? Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos, an ICT policy researcher enumerates some:

"Adoption of the 'Open Access' model. Updating laws and regulatory framework to promote investment and innovation in communications and technology.

Levelling the playing field. Updating and upgrading the country's ICT strategy and plan. Improving spectrum management.

Ensuring the competitiveness of the telecommunications industry."

The prescriptions are in the particulars. Let me cite a few:

  • Offering of non-discriminatory terms for service providers or equal access charges for clients across the board is one.

  • Local IP peering is another. This would entail supporting growth of open, neutral IXPs where ALL players are treated equally.

  • There can be shared towers and utility corridors to lower cost for all players. Government can lease assets such as fiber optic cables, poles or carrier-neutral passive infrastructure.

  • There should be a transparent allocation process of spectrums with clear criteria for assignment, valuation mechanism. Cruz calls it the "use it or lose it" approach and the "refarming" of spectrum resources.

  • Anti-competitive practices must be stopped. NTC must be remolded into a truly regulatory, and not a captive, agency.

How do we let thousands of free WiFi spots bloom? By fixing the upstream first. If this bill will provide the gateway and the impetus for reforms, propelled by the critical mass of users, then it is the greatest-value service it can provide.

The bottomline is, we cannot divorce the subject of this bill with the larger business environment under which it will be built.

This bill goes beyond installing taxpayer funded free WiFi spots. Like the creation of the DICT, it forms part of the must-dos to future-proof our country. It is one of the important apps for tomorrow.

Our capacity to create jobs, grow our economy, train skilled people, and feed our country will rest on our ability to expand our ICT capability, open WiFi spots included.

It has been said that a 10% increase in broadband penetration can lead to 1.38% increase in the Gross Domestic Product.

Another study showed that a 0.5 Mbps increase in internet speed hikes household income by $800 per year in less developed economies.

ICT-reliant companies provide the third largest source of dollars - after electronics and OFW remittances.

BPOs, the call centers, the back offices, medical transcription, game development, creative process outsourcing, to name a few employ a million Filipinos, more if ancillary services are included.

One in four jobs today are occupied by knowledge workers.

Mr. President, my dear colleagues .

If we want to meaningfully celebrate the 100th year of this institution, then let it be through important laws passed that will be remembered 100 years from now.

This bill is definitely not of the top of the list, not even on the first page of the catalog of must-pass legislation.

But in this broad spectrum of bold and brave new laws, it has its special place, more so if government will leverage its WiFi and other ICT related expenditures to crowbar the lifting of the heavy lid that blocks the full enjoyment of our people of a service that has been declared a human right.

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