First of three parts

INTERNET access is no longer just a privilege for the rich, thanks to the ongoing global digital revolution. In the Philippines, however, access to the Web remains to be at the lower end of the spectrum.

And considering pronouncements from the United Nations (UN), this is another basic human right that Filipinos are being deprived of.

For Frank La Rue, the special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion of the UN, the Internet is a human right. Access to the Web, La Rue argued, is not merely a privilege for the rich and the famous, but is now considered a basic need, as the Internet is an avenue where people can enjoy their rights to freedom of expression and opinion.

It also gives people the access to a

marketplace of information-a library of

ideas and opinions, where people converge and exchange concepts and ideas encompassing basically anything under the sun.

La Rue pointed out that the Internet, like any other medium, enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national boarders.

Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states. Each state should, thus, develop a concrete and effective policy¦to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of population, he said.

But access to the Web in the Philippines remains low. In 2013 a United Nations Broadband Commission report that was published last year showed that only 23 of every 100 Filipino homes have access to broadband Internet.

It ranked the Philippines as 106th out of 191 countries surveyed for overall Internet-user penetration at a rate of 37 percent. This should have increased by now, as Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT) and Globe Telecom Inc. have launched in 2014 free Internet access to their subscribers.

Smart Communications Inc.’s mobile brands Smart, Sun and Talk ‘N Text offered basic access to the Internet via mobile phones, while Globe Telecom Inc. offered free access to certain online applications such as Facebook and Viber.

Access to the Internet has transitioned from a want to a need, National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) Director for Regulations Edgardo V. Cabarios said. Thus the need for us to regulate it.

Slow but expensive

While Internet penetration in the Philippines is expected to grow this year, the country’s average broadband speed versus the average price can be considered as being at the lower band of the service frequencies.

Again, the Philippines is an Asean laggard in this aspect.

Studies show that there is a significant disparity between the Philippines’s average speed and price, as compared to its neighbors.

For one, according to studies conducted by Ookla, an Internet metrics provider, the Philippines has the second-slowest average download speed among 22 countries in Asia.

As of May, the country’s average download speed reached 3.64 Mbps, ranking 176th out of 202 nations around the world. It is eight times slower than the global average broadband download speed of 23.3 Mbps.

Not surprisingly, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea topped the test in Asia. The Philippines has the slowest average broadband speed among the 10 Asean nations.

The Ookla report also showed that Filipinos pay more than their neighbors with an average user spend of $18.19 per Mbps versus the global average of $5.21 per Mbps.

In a separate report, cloud services provider Akamai Technologies said that, while the Philippines might have improved its connection by a percentage point, its overall ranking in Asia still remains at number 13 out of 15, or the third-worst connection in the region.

Filipinos, according to the first-quarter report of Akamai, enjoyed an average download speed of 2.8 Mbps during the period under review. Trailing behind are India and Indonesia with 2.3 Mpbs and 2.2 Mbps average speed, respectively.

Again, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore were the top 4, with their connection speeds touching the 70-Mbps to 98.5-Mbps range at peak.

‘Pathetic’

As the Philippines continues its losing streak in the broadband-speed wars, lawmakers are moving to conduct a probe to help improve the pathetic state of the Internet in the country.

The upper chamber was not at all happy with the numbers above. Sen. Paolo Benigno A. Aquino IV initiated a Senate investigation on the slow, but expensive Internet-service offerings in the country last year.

This year Sen. Francis G. Escudero also called for another inquiry on the state of the Philippine broadband market, calling it unacceptable given that it has a direct impact to many industries, like the business -process outsourcing sector, which currently helps grow the Philippine economy.

The current situation in the country is, sad to say, unacceptable. The state of Internet speed is pathetic, and unless we remedy this situation, our IT [information technology] sector is likely to suffer in the long term, he said. He called on the NTC to start cracking the whip and fix the system immediately.

If they have to be mandated to allocate some of their earnings for improving Internet speed, mainly through investing in more equipment and hardware, then so be it, Escudero said.

He added: These telcos have been going to town in the past few years telling their shareholders that they have been earning billions of pesos. But they conveniently forget the millions of subscribers and users who put those billions in their coffers but who continue to suffer from poor service.

As of end-June, PLDT and Globe have a combined net income of P27.4 billion. The point is, something needs to be done and done very soon, he said. The problem is that government agencies that are supposed to monitor these telcos and help consumers don’t seem to feel the urgency of the situation.

Just last week another Senate investigation was launched. Stakeholders gave updates as to the situation of the Internet market in the Philippines, and the updates were not at all too positive.

Teeth not sharp enough

But broadband is not a basic service, making it hard for the telecommunications commission to regulate the operations of Internet-service providers.

Cabarios admitted that the office’s power in regulating the Internet speed and price is limited, despite the glaring fact that it has been a need for most Filipinos.

We really need to amend the existing laws to give the commission additional powers to respond to new challenges, he said.

Cabarios said the complaints filed at the NTC will show that Internet is not just a value-added service, but is already a need. The number of complaints on broadband and data services have been increasing quickly-especially the mobile broadband segment.

From January to July about 406 complaints on broadband connection were filed before the regulator. The number from the first month of the year to the seventh rose at an average rate of 80 percent.

The NTC started to segregate the complaints by their nature only this year, but Cabarios was sure that the complaints filed against telcos on legacy services-calls and texts-have been declining since Filipinos were introduced to free access to social media.

Making the Internet a basic service means the government will have the right to dictate the price and the speed of the connection.

There are proposals in Congress to amend the Public Service Act of 1936 to help the NTC regulate the price and speed of Internet services, but none has progressed so far.

In the absence of a new law, we have to make use of the existing ones, and their limitations. We have to be creative as a regulator to do much within the limits of the law, Cabarios said.

For example, since broadband is simply a value-added service, the regulator just issued the guidelines for a minimum broadband speed in the country.

NTC Commissioner Gamaliel A. Cordoba said his office has ordered Internet service providers to disclose the average speed of their connection per location starting September.

In a memo, Cordoba said the average connection for a fixed-line broadband plan should be on a par with the standard of the International Telecommunications Union, or at 256 kilobits per second.

Subscribers, he said, should always be updated as to the connection service that they are using, whether they reach the minimum requirement or not.

The NTC will procure Internet speed-test technologies to enact the memo, Cabarios said. Results will be published per area every month.

On the instance that subscribers will not enjoy the speed that were advertised to them, they can file complaints before the regulator, or the Department of Trade and Industry if it involves false advertising.

But the teeth of the law are not that sharp enough, Cordoba said.

According to Public Service Act of 1936, the penalty for such complaints is around P200. The law was promulgated in the 1930s, thus, it needs to be updated, he said. The National Economic and Development Authority estimates that P200, when the law was promulgated, is equivalent to about P1.4 million in present time.

While the absence of the law restricts the regulator from its job, there are also other factors that affect Internet connection in the Philippines. These are topography, the lack of investments and the inefficiency in local peering.