Free Wi-Fi projects slowed down by delayed LGU permits

CONNECTED NATION. Bills pushing for free internet can transform the value of an internet connection from being a privilege to a right.

CONNECTED NATION. Bills pushing for free internet can transform the value of an internet connection from being a privilege to a right.

MANILA, Philippines – Only 26% of public schools in the country have internet connectivity, according to a report by the Department of Education (DepEd) submitted to Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV.

At a Senate hearing on Thursday, September 8, the science and technology committee chairman said the low percentage is alarming.

"And to think, may bilyun-bilyong piso silang budget para i-connect ang ating mga eskuwelahan sa internet, only about one-fourth lang ang may kakayahang mag-connect dahil sa kakulangan sa infrastructure at internet signal," added the senator.

(And to think, they have billions of pesos in their budget to provide internet access for public schools, but only about one-fourth have connectivity because of the lack of infrastructure and internet signal.)

The lack of infrastructure, especially in far-flung areas, is partly because telcos, as a business, have naturally selected cell site spots for commercial viability. However, as Aquino notes, telcos are now more willing to set up shop in more remote regions. The fact that several senators are lobbying for internet-for-all initiatives may have helped prod this development. 

In a future hearing, Aquino said they will discuss a scenario where the government itself invests in and puts up the infrastructure – as some other countries have already done. 

There is one problem more immediate though: the numerous permits being required by local government units are said to be stifling the speed at which the corporate sector and the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) can put up the sites necessary for connectivity. 

"Iyong isa kasing na-mention ng isang telco, they had budget for 1,000 cell sites but they [were] only able to put up less than half. So less than 500 ang natayo nila kasi nahirapan sila sa mga permits at sa ease of doing business with the local government units," said Aquino.

(As one telco mentioned, they had budget for 1,000 cell sites but they were only able to put up less than half. So less than 500 were put up because they had difficulty obtaining permits and ease of doing business with the local government units.)

Senator Grace Poe made it clear that getting the permits have to be fast-tracked. Speaking to DICT Secretary Rodolfo Salalima, she suggested drafting a bill that would cut down the number of required permits from "25" to "maybe just a few," and will ensure that their duration lasts more than just a year, but can be revoked if there are violations. (READ: Duterte to Cabinet: Process permits in 30 days or we part ways)

Poe said this would be the better option between taking away the authority from LGUs completely.

Salalima and the DICT are drafting an executive order to expedite a provision in the law that will address the turtle-like pace of securing the permits.

Team effort

A significant portion of the 38,666 public elementary schools, 8,086 public high schools, and 117 state universities and colleges (SUCs) do not have basic internet connections yet – which could put a ceiling on students' abilities to keep up with the connected world.

The DICT said it is planning to offer free Wi-Fi in around 5,000 public places by the end of 2016, and increase this to 12,841 public areas nationwide by November 2017. (READ: P1.76B earmarked for free Wi-Fi in proposed 2017 budget)

Lawmakers are also pushing for the following bills:

These fronts should help encourage other sectors to lend a hand in changing the value of an internet connection from being a privilege to every citizen's right. – Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.

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