National Broadband Network: Boon or Bane?

The need for a National Information Network

In addition to the allegations of high-level corruption, another question that the NBN controversy begs to be answered is whether a national information network proposed is needed at this point and time.

The proposed National Broadbank Network can potentially interconnect all government agencies and institutions thus improving communications and interactions between them. By creating a huge LAN or wide area network (WAN), the NBN aims to construct a national backbone in lieu of local providers to provide internet access to local government units and institutions and to streamline government services. The use of new value-added services can also be of great advantage to institutions in the network such as VOIP and video conferencing, which can reduce communications charges for the government.

Yet the Philippine government is not new to having such an intranet structure. The DOST Advanced Science and Technology Institute (ASTI) already maintains a similar network which interconnects different research institutions nationwide. The Philippine Research, Education, and Government Information Network (PREGINET) has at least 16 access points for use of its partners all over the archipelago [1]. On PREGINET, local partners can connect to one of the access points which has direct connections to one of the four exchange points. The exchange points are then connected to the ASTI which utilizes available providers to connect the whole PREGINET to the internet.

However, internet connections are subject to the availability of local providers. Before high-speed internet connections called broadband, dial-up internet service providers were the main provider of internet access. These dial-up providers should be nearby so that connections would not need long distance charges to connect. With dial-up, traditional copper-wire based telephone lines can be used but with broadband internet services, a digital subscriber line (DSL ) or cable modem is required to access the high-speed connection.

Government institutions and local government units ideally also should have their own separate local area networks (LANs). These LANs enable sharing of resources from printers, storage, emails, and internet connections.

When people do not have access to information services and telecommunications, and governance is hampered by slow coordination between the national and local government units, any improvement to the use and access of new technology will always be welcome if implemented by a government with genuine interest in serving its population.

Computerizations and improved communication networks are welcome development in providing service to the grassroots. Unfortunately, this administration seems to be primarily interested in sharing the kickbacks. It must not come at the expense of fattening the pockets of a few corrupt public officials and losing a strategic utility to foreign interests. Was the NBN created to provide accessible communication facilities to the countryside or just to fatten pockets of some government officials?

Lack of national ICT infrastructures

The NBN project furthermore draws attention to the prevailing lack of national ICT infrastructures as a public utility service in the Philippines.

Since the Philippine telecommunications industry was liberalized in 1995, an increase in the availability of fixed telephone line infrastructure has taken place. However, this increase in telephone density is very limited to the rural and urban centers which rake in profits for telephone companies.

The Telecommunications Act of the Philippines, RA 7925 also further opened up for liberalization and competition the long-time PLDT-monopolized telecommunications sector. This added around 6.9 million lines installed in the country in 2001. However, a 2001 NTC survey found out that there was very limited compliance by telecommunications companies to complete the missionary work mandated by the liberalization law. RA 7925 mandated a 10:1 ratio in line installation. For every 10 lines installed in profitable areas, one line should be installed in rural unprofitable areas. This definition of “service” by RA 7925 has brought limited telephone lines in the provinces. This ratio is already a modification of the 3:1 set on the first year of implementation of the law.

The lack of accessible and affordable telecommunications services in the countryside persists up to the present. In 2000, only 40 fixed telephone lines were available for every 1000 Filipinos. In 2004, this national average increased to only 41 fixed lines per 1000 Filipinos. By 2006, the United Nations (UN) comparative survey [2] was already revealing that the “service” was disregarded by local telecommunications companies.

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