New Internet speed minimum throwback to ’90s?

Chrisee Dela Paz

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New Internet speed minimum throwback to ’90s?
The Philippine government sets the minimum Internet speed at 256 kilobits per second. But tech groups say this is hardly a broadband experience.

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine government has redefined broadband services and set the minimum speed at 256 kilobits per second (kbps), which consumer groups said could be the first step to real reforms in the country’s telecommunication industry.

The new rule is seen to benefit subscribers who are not getting the speed promised them when they signed up for their broadband plans.

Take the case of 49-year-old Giolo Tadeo, who said that he’s been using the services of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) for around 30 years now only because he has no other choice.

“We have no choice. It’s A or B (PLDT and Globe Telecom, Incorporated); both are known to have poor service. Despite downtime in Internet and landline, PLDT continues to bill us the full flat monthly fee, I think it’s only fair to implement a policy that will auto rebate affected consumers,” Tadeo told Rappler, showing his complaint logs to the telecommunications firm since July 2014. (READ: Monopolies, duopolies hamper PH inclusive growth)

“I’m home 98% of the time, and I feel lost and shut out from the world whenever our landline isn’t working or our Internet connection is down,” the 49-year-old Zamboanga resident said in frustration.

Florandino Jose Rairata, a subscriber of Globe for more than a decade, shared the same experience.

“Internet is the lifeblood of my work, and in this advanced technological age, perhaps this is also the case for many others,” he said on his Facebook wall. “I have been a loyal subscriber of Globe for more than a decade now, and I currently have multiple postpaid accounts because I believed in them all through those years,” Rairata said.

“Yet, recently, I think that they have lost their way.”

The Philippines is way behind its neighbors in Asia in Internet speed, where some of the fastest Internet speed in the world are found. Singapore, for example, has an average Internet download speed of 133.1 mbps compared to the Philippines’ miserable 3.7 mbps.

Minimum speed

On August 13 this year, the NTC signed a memorandum setting the minimum broadband speed at 256 kbps and mandated service providers to disclose to the public their average data rates per location.

Services marketed as broadband must have speeds above 256 kbps at least 80% of the time, or 24 days in a month, or the ISP will face “administrative sanctions at the minimum,” the new memorandum read.

Democracy.Net.PH, a group lobbying for the proposed Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom, welcomed the new rules as “a positive development in the pursuit of fairness between service providers and the subscribing public.”

“Providing a mechanism by which the public will be informed of the average performance of their service providers in terms of download and upload speeds, and the lag and dirtiness of their connections, serves the public good,” Pierre Tito Galla, the group’s co-founder, said in an email.

The Philippines had no required minimum speed before this memorandum. Service providers were allowed to set their own minimum Internet speed and required service reliability of at least 80%.

Throwback to the ’90s

Several tech groups say the new minimum requirement is still low.

“Surfing websites today at 256 kbps is similar to surfing on dial-up in the 90s with slow loading pages, content, and images – hardly a broadband experience,” a July 2015 position paper of the Philippine Web Designers Organization (PWDO), Game Developers Association of the Philippines (GDAP), Philippine Game Developers Community (PGDC), Philippine Flash ActionScripters (Phlashers), and Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA) said.

“We are in agreement that we adopt ITU (International Telecommunication Union) standards, but the  ISPs should adopt a minimum of at least 1.5-2 mbps or better,” the position paper read.

The tech groups said NTC needs to recognize that the Internet landscape of 2015 is a far cry from 2003. 

“In 2003, the average webpage size was 100-300 KiloBytes (KB). Today, webpages average about 1 to 3 mb which is an increase by a factor of 10,” the position paper read.

The Philippine Association of Private Telephone Companies (PAPTELCO), however, said the minimum connection speed of 256 kbps is already acceptable.

“For the 1.5 mb minimum speed other groups want, there could be challenges in advertising it because the subscriber profile in Zamboanga is different from Metro Manila. There are limitations in provinces due to lack of infrastructure,” Globe Telecom Incorporated legal counsel Froilan Castelo told Rappler.

Under the new memorandum, Democracy.Net.Ph’s Galla said: “Any claims of nationwide coverage can no longer be marketing claims, as there is now a rule that areas of coverage must be specified.”

“An ISP that claims to have nationwide coverage but fails to deliver in some areas can be held administratively liable,” he added.

STRANGLING CONNECTION. 'Surfing websites today at 256 kbps is similar to surfing on dial-up in the 90s with slow loading pages, content, and images – hardly a broadband experience,' several tech groups say.

Complex picture

The problem is not that simple, however.

Telcos have to replace old copper cables, deal with redundant international fiber optic connections that can go beyond their control, confront geographical issues, raise huge capital, and still be competitive with pricing.

PLDT public affairs head Ramon Isberto explained in an email interview that subscribers encounter service interruptions when its network facilities face technical problems. 

“There could be problems in transmission facilities, such as when there are fiber cuts caused by cable theft or road diggings, which has actually risen in frequency since 2014 because of numerous road-building projects in many parts of the country,” Isberto said.

Another usual cause of service interruption, Isberto said, is the quality of copper cable in older parts of the network.

“Data services require a higher quality of copper cable than voice. That’s why PLDT is currently replacing old copper cable, increasingly with fiber,” he explained.

The PLDT official said services may also be impaired if very high traffic levels create congestion in different parts of the network.

“It isn’t just the domestic network. Since a lot of popular web content comes from overseas, operators also have to maintain redundant international fiber optic connections, particularly in the US where the bulk of web content is housed,” Isberto said.

Isberto pointed out that the big picture is complex because many of these network processes are not within the total control of operator.

Increase bandwidth, invest in network

“To address these issues, PLDT made investments in international cable capacity,” Isberto added.

“Over the past 10 years, PLDT has increased its international bandwidth from about 133 gbps  (gigabits per second) to nearly 1.6 tbps (terabits per second), a 1,100% increase,” Isberto said. PLDT spent roughly P300 billion ($6.57 billion) over the past 10 years.

To complement this investment, the telco giant said it is increasing its local caching capabilities, particularly for international traffic. 

“Caching helps improve speed and latency for our customers and reduces traffic congestion at key international websites,” Isberto said.

As the Philippines reaches the 50% penetration rate for smartphones, which is the tipping point for most data service providers, the PLDT official said they expect the capital spending budget for the year to lie north of P39 billion ($853.94 million) to strengthen network resiliency and raise network capacity. (READ: PLDT 2015 budget may exceed P40B)

PLDT’s capital expenditure for the year will be spent for the rollout of additional coverage and capacity for its 3G and 4G networks.

Geographical challenge

Globe’s Castelo told Rappler that the Philippines’ geographical location and size make it challenging to give “customers what they are aspiring [for], which is the best service at the lowest possible price.”

“The Philippines is shaped by sharp geographic divisions between a mainly urban north and a heavily agricultural south. This makes it challenging for us to give customers what they aspire,” Castelo said.

“Remember, it’s different in other countries like Singapore, which is a small country. There is no geographical challenge for them. Unlike in the Philipppines, we have over 7,000 islands; and the challenge is you have to offer Internet services at a very competitive pricing despite the network cost,” he further explained.

Castelo said network in the Philippines is “pricier than those in Japan and Korea.”  (READ: Slow Internet? Blame red tape – telcos)

To illustrate, Singaporeans are paying less for a 300 mbps for SG$49.90 (P1,644.19; $35.45) home broadband than Filipinos do for a 10 mbps plan for P2,499 ($53.88).

Even the Philippines’ Globe’s starter plan shows a stark difference with that of Singapore’s SingTel. 

Published rates as of August 17, 2015, subject to change. Check Globe and Singtel's websites for information. Conversion guide as of August 18, 2015:  $1 = P45.67; SG$1 = P32.95

Improve Internet connectivity

Improving quality of services and increasing access are two things needed to improve Internet connectivity in the Philippines, Democracy.Net.PH said.

In 2013, Administrative Order No. 39 specified that all government agencies must exchange data​​ through a government-run IX facility (PhOpenIX). 

In 2014, the DOJ released Advisory Opinion No. 01 on “truth in advertising” for broadband and mobile Internet as well as Advisory Opinion No. 02 on “unlimited” Internet offers. (READ: Deliver as advertised, DOJ warns Internet service providers)

Now, the NTC released new broadband rules “as a first step in ensuring the quality of service of Internet connectivity service providers,” Democracy.Net.PH said.

“Other initiatives to improve access include public free WiFi, TV Whitespace, proposals to remove prepaid load expiry policies and standardize ‘fair use policies’ – proposals to improve policies on road right-of-way, and streamline the issuance of business and tower construction permits,” Galla of Democracy.Net.PH said.

The group added there is a need for logical structural segmentation of Philippine ICT (information and communications technology) infrastructure. 

“With the application of logical segmentations, telecommunications firms need not be monolithic and monopolistic to operate; instead, there will be the rapid growth of various privately-owned, PPP-run (public-private partnership-run), and government-owned and operated international gateway facilities,”  Democracy.Net.PH said.

Democracy.Net.PH said it continues to urge both government and the private sector to include ICT development among national priorities. 

“There is no reason for the Philippines not to catch up to the demands of the 21st century,” the group said–

 $1 = P45.67

SG$1 = P32.95

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