Internet in the Philippines: 20 years since

Michael Palacios
Web pioneer Michael Palacios looks back at the societal and commercial change spurred by the Internet since it was introduced in the country two decades ago

MANILA, Philippines – It started with a rather nondescript event: a lone engineer at midnight, plugging a cable into a router. This was followed by a particularly humble amount of bandwidth: 64Kbps (a fraction of a fraction of my blazing mobile LTE connection on a bad day). I can imagine that my quad-core Android phone could probably run rings around the old desktop they first used to connect.

But it was definitely a beginning. Today, no one can deny that, two decades down the road, the Internet is now an integral part of Philippine society. So when was the year that digital went mainstream?

Was it back in the dial-up days, when ISPs charged by the hour, and the screech of handshaking modems filled living rooms and study halls?

Was it in the late 1990s, when campus wars were fought on online forums like PinoyExchange (disclosure: I’m a co-founder)? 

Was it in 2003, when Ragnarok Online was played in a thousand Internet cafes nationwide?

Was it that time in the late-2000s when everyone – yes, even your mother – was exchanging testimonials on Friendster?

Was it in 2010, when Noynoy Aquino was elected president amidst a tsunami of Facebook likes and hopeful tweets?

If you ask me, every year since that first Internet connection has been the Year of the Mainstream Internet. It’s fueled a blistering pace of societal and commercial change, and individuals and businesses and institutions have been scrambling to play catch up.


Three major changes were enabled by the Web. The first is largely informational, made real when publishers moved their content online – articles, text, video, photos. Add to that a wealth of peer information, enabled by social media, and we’re pretty much standing in a soup of organized data. Two behemoths, Google and Facebook, are jockeying to be the key to making sense of the entire Web. 

The second is transactional. This is the promise of interactive media. E-commerce entrepreneurs started by targeting overseas Filipinos, but it was always a niche business until the dawn of the seat sale and the rise of the daily deal. Today, Philippine e-commerce is a US$1-billion-a-year (and growing) business, driven largely by travel, but rapidly expanding into traditional retail. Even a group as entrenched in brick-and-mortar as SM just last week joined the Digital Commerce Association of the Philippines – so you know they’re taking it seriously.

The last is mobile, and here we’re standing at ground zero. Cheap devices and decreasing access costs are wiring people more quickly than ever. Nearly two-thirds of Facebook users in the Philippines have accessed the service via a mobile device. Nearly half of advertising inventory on the Web is mobile. We have 36 million Internet users today; the next 36 million are likely going to first fire up the Internet on their mobile (and maybe snap a selfie along the way).

This doesn’t even count the fact that the entire BPO industry is essentially Internet-enabled. Or the fact that a big chunk of OFW remittance is fueled through Web-based remittance platforms. Or technologies like Skype and Facetime that keep our overseas brothers and sisters connected to their loved ones here. How much is THAT worth? 

Speed bumps 

All this awesomeness is not without its share of problems, but I daresay they are transitional issues representative of a society that is coming to grips with what technology can deliver. Here are a few:

“Institutions need to be able control what people can or can’t say online!” Implication: everyone today has a voice that matters, and organizations and individuals alike need to figure out how to have a civil conversation in the social sphere.

“My Internet access is SO SLOW!” Implication: Internet users have embraced the idea of anytime, anywhere access to information and experiences, and we have to wrestle with how we are going to process all of that information. 

“It creeps me out that my smartphone knows where I am and what I’m doing.” Implication: we have truly embraced these devices as intimate personal assistants, and we have to deal with an expanded view of privacy in the digital age.

As someone who’s made his business on the strength of the Internet, I have a lot to be thankful for. Every ad campaign my company releases, every rant posted on PinoyExchange, every transaction delivered by our e-commerce unit, happened because a bunch of engineers in 1994 decided to take an important first step into a larger world (and someone picked up the tab for laying down some undersea cable).  

Raise your glass 

When you’re talking about history, one thing you need to salute are the players: the companies who were part of the scene through those all-important baby steps. The early ISPs, with names like iPhil, Philworld, and Tridel. Those startups that flew, fell, pivoted, or coalesced into something better: Edsamail, MyPhilippines, Localvibe, Legmanila. Asia Online was one of the first enablers for brands to get websites out the door. 

There were the early groups who took chances on new ideas: investment arms like iAyala and Hatch Asia – early precursors of today’s Hatchd, Ideaspac, and Kickstart. And most importantly, we raise our glasses to the companies who have stuck around since the early days: Yehey (now public), Mozcom, ClicktheCity, Inquirer (previously Inq7), Philmusic, among others.

Marc Zuckerberg of Facebook has always said this to prospective recruits: “We are closer to the beginning than to the end.” Who knows what we’ll enjoy two decades from now?  –

Michael Palacios is the Managing Director of Havoc Digital, a digital marketing services company with involvements in social, e-commerce, Web publishing, and digital media. He is also the 2014 president of the Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines or IMMAP.

Pixel Philippines Image and Background image (the Internet) from Shutterstock.  

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