Free public internet: A tale of two bills

Lab Notes

In the past two months, our two legislative Houses – the Congress and the Senate – have been quite busy in rushing the passage of legislation related to providing free internet to the public. House Bill 5225 (HB 5225) is a consolidated version of similar bills authored by no less than 19 congress representatives. The Senate version, Senate Bill 1277 (SB 1277), consolidates four bills from Senators Pangilinan, Pacquiao, Recto and Aquino IV.

This comes as no surprise. President Duterte himself has declared in his first State of the Nation Address in July that “Wi-Fi access shall be provided at no charge in selected public places”[1]. This also comes in the heels of his declaration to implement a national broadband program to ensure broadband internet access to the whole archipelago, a draft plan of which was unveiled last January.

Internet having been declared a basic human right by the United Nations in 2015, any public policy decision involving its implementation, delivery, access, deserves careful scrutiny as it will impact how this vital tool is delivered and accessed by all Filipinos.

Juan Konek: The Free Internet Initiative that Was

This is not the only time that the government rolled out a program to provide free internet access to the Filipino public. Back in 2014, the DOST’s (now defunct) ICT Office or ICTO unveiled its Free Wi-Fi Internet Access in Public Places project. With an original budget of P334 million ($6.7 M) designed to cover 748 class 4, 5, and 6 municipalities, it was upgraded at year-end as a P3-billion project covering specific public places, in addition to a total of 967 class 4 to 6 municipalities. It started rollout in July 2015 with free WiFi in six locations in Metro Manila[2], under a private-public partnership (PPP) deal between ICTO and commercial internet service providers (ISPs).

The project experienced difficulty as private ISPs had little interest in rolling out infrastructure in low-income municipalities, from whose budgets they will be paid. In January 2016, the project was further expanded to cover class 1 to 2 municipalities, with a sum target coverage of 1,435 localities, and receiving an additional P1.5-billion budget. Previously placed under the ambit of Juan Konek!, a project aimed at digital literacy for all Filipinos, the free public internet project itself was later rebranded under the same name.

To date, the Juan Konek project reports a total coverage of 13 regions, 23 provinces, and 54 cities and municipalities[3]. This is a far cry from the ambitious targets initially declared for the project. While the initiative was inherited by the newly-constituted Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) which replaced ICTO, it received little mileage in terms of the new department’s many new projects and developments.

HB 5225: A Welcome Step Towards Free Public Internet

HB 5225, entitled An Act Mandating the Provision of Free Wi-Fi Access in Public Areas, is a consolidation of eight bills pending before Congress, namely H.B.s 515, 616, 660, 1954, 1957, 2836, 3055 and 3250. It was first introduced and recommended for approval as a substitute to the above bills by the House Committee on ICT on March 9. On second reading a few days later, March 14, HB 5225 was approved at the committee level.

News of the approval of HB 5225 at the committee level was met by celebration by not a few tech observers, youth, and regular internet users. Who would not want Free Public WiFi? An amendment introduced by ICT Committee Chair Rep. Victor Yap further ensured delivery of the much-needed public service at a minimum speed of 10 megabits per second or 10 Mbps (Sec.4) – a far cry from the national average of 4.5 Mbps experienced by only 31% Filipino internet[4]. Sections assuring its stability and reliability (Sec.3) make the bill even sweeter for Filipino internet users who’ve had to contend with unreliable, inconsistent internet offered by commercial ISPs.

Even more user-friendly provisions of the bill include assurances that the Free Public WiFi shall not be restricted by passwords except in certain specified cases (Sec.5) and shall not require any fee (Sec.5). Privacy concerns are even addressed with an explicit section on the non-collection of user data (Sec.6).

This is a free public WiFi law that the Filipino public can enthusiastically support. To maximize the service, legislation towards this end would benefit from adding more measures of internet quality of service such as jitter, latency, packet loss, and bit error rates. It should also include provisions to ensure net neutrality (meaning the internet experience will not be walled inside certain platform or apps), as well as data neutrality (meaning no limit will be placed, given that public policy and the law is followed, on the type of data that can be accessed and transmitted by users).

Furthermore, legislation on Free Public WiFi should include provisions ensuring priority access to underserved and unserved areas, especially in the spirit of “leaving no one behind” and “addressing the digital divide” – outcomes circumscribed in the Sustainable Development Goals and the ASEAN ICT Masterplan, respectively, that the Philippine government has committed to.

SB 1277: Boon for Private Telcos, Bane for the Filipino public

Senate Bill 1277, entitled Free Internet Access in Public Places Act, consolidates four pending bills:
•?SB 58, An Act Providing Free Wi-Fi Internet Access in Public Buildings, Transport Terminals and Parks, and for Other Purposes, filed by Sen. Francis Pangilinan;
•?SB 190, An Act Establishing the Wireless Internet Access Program in all State Universities and Colleges in the Country and Appropriating Funds Therefor, filed by Sen. Manny Pacquiao;
•?SB 816, An Act Providing Free Wi-Fi Internet Access in Public Buildings, Transport Terminals and Parks, and for Other Purposes, filed by Sen. Ralph Recto; and,
•?SB 1050, An Act Establishing the Internet Access Program in all Public Educational Institutions in the Country and Appropriating Funds Therefor, filed by Sen. Bam Aquino IV.

The substitute bill was sponsored by Sen. Aquino IV and recommended for approval by the Senate Committees on Science and Technology; Education, Arts, and Culture; and Finance on December 12 last year. After three months of interpellation and amendments, SB 1277 was approved at the senate committee level on third reading last March 13, just a day before HB 5225 passed the ICT committee deliberations.

As its name suggests, the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act is substantially different from all the Senate bills it purports to substitute. Even more notable, it is a different animal from Congress’ proposed Free Public Wifi Act. While both Congress and Senate bills pertain to ensuring public internet access, a closer look will reveal that they describe two entirely different aspects of the service: HB 5225 sets parameters on how free public WiFi will be experienced by the using public, while SB 1277 tackles the infrastructure requirements (in other words, the back end) of public internet access delivery.

This fundamental difference between the House and Senate bills raises valid concerns of whether the two bills should be combined through a bicameral session of both legislative houses in the first place.

Closer scrutiny also reveals that from a public interest perspective, SB 1277 contains provisions that essentially hand over public broadband service to private ISPs on a silver platter. To wit: two sections (Sec.6 and 9) lengthily discuss streamlining the permit and certification process needed by ISPs to install internet infrastructure on public land, including the standardization of all fees by the DICT. This is a demand long echoed by ISPs and the telecom duopoly. While it may look harmless at first glance, this may portend cheapening permit and certificate fees that LGUs have the right to justly collect. Provisions in the bill further task LGUs to facilitate ISP access to public property and to provide security to installed internet facilities. This saves ISPs the burden of dealing with informal settlers on public land, as well as hiring guards to man, for instance, cell towers.

Use of much-sought after and valuable spectrum, or essentially airwaves regulated by the NTC, is also assured under Section 11 of SB 1277. Even more, ISPs offering free public internet access will be exempt from payment of all fees and charges. While this is acceptable at its face value, frequencies falling under this category should be made transparent. Specific provisions need to be in place to ensure that the license-free spectrum shall not be used for commercial purposes.

Section 10 of the Senate bill even assures ISPs that they will be allowed to use public spaces to freely promote the free public internet they offer – or rather, their own companies and brands. As if the public has not had enough with the intrusion of various companies in to what should be neutral, ad-optional spaces like parks, schools, government offices, and hospitals. Furthermore, specific provisions should be in place to ensure that the digital space – that is, the free public internet user’s phone, tablet, or computer – will not be barraged with all sorts of ads and pop-ups.

Without clearly defined provisions stipulating minimum broadband standards to assure quality of service (and consequently, experience), the Free Internet Access in Public Act will be a boon to telcos without any meaningful benefit to the public. This falls neatly in place with DICT Secretary Salalima’s vision for the state agency, that is to make business as easy-peasy as possible for his buddies in the telecommunications industry.

(Photo by Carlo Manalansan/Bulatlat)
(Photo by Carlo Manalansan/Bulatlat)
A logical counterbalance to this will be to make regulatory requirements for the delivery of free internet access in public clearly defined. This will make any legislation on the provision of this service substantially better than the status quo of “bulok na internet” experienced by Filipino internet users at the hands of the telecom duopoly.

While free public internet access is something that Filipinos can back, legislation of such that is essentially Free ISP Access to the Public Domain is something that we should reject. This works in the same framework of public service, private gain that we’ve experienced with the likes of LRT1 under the LRMC and the MWSS under Maynilad and Manila Water. We should reject such moves that will further cement the hold of profit-oriented corporations over what should be public utilities and services.

[4] Based on Akamai Technologies’ State of the Internet Report for the 4th quarter of 2016. See:
Lab Notes: critical views and incisive analysis on issues in the Philippines, charting ways in making science and technology serve the people.

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