The Tragedy of Philippine Internet Speeds

When I was complaining about Globe tattoo problems, sure there were people complaining about their own Tattoo sticks.  But I also tapped into a very vibrant community asking one question:  Why is Philippine Internet so slow?

So I was rereading my post on Globe tattoo’s instability (at a time when I was still using the stick and it was giving me USB connection problems) and how, when you relied on broadband connectivity when cabled Internet was not possible (DSL), it fails fantastically.   I’ve had a consistently high readership in this article—higher than all my articles, in fact—and have the most comments.   I tapped into a very vibrant community.

And they had one complaint: why is the Internet so slow?

I’ve discussed in that article about the Fair Usage Policy, where if a subscriber exceeds a certain data limitation (1.5Gb or less), the connectivity would be drastically lowered.   Consumers decried that as unfair, unwarranted, and not a few filed complaints with the NTC.

So, I decided to research (actually just browse) over why the Philippines had the slowest Internet.   I came up with several articles, as late as 2015, decrying that we had the slowest, or second-to-the-slowest (just before Afghanistan?!?) Internet.  And we also had the most expensive subscriptions, higher than the average in Asia or the world.

Then I stumbled on this article.   I basically had a notion of some of the points it was saying, but I was surprised I had an incomplete assessment.   It explained in a clear analogy why our Internet was so clogged.   Seriously, read the article here.

Basically, what happened was what I would call “Risk Capitalism”.    The Telco providers built an infrastructure providing connectivity to a certain volume of consumers.   Gambling on the premise that these consumers would not be using connectivity all the time, they offered connectivity to more consumers, so that consumption was at overcapacity but it was not being felt because consumption was not currently overlapping.

Then the full force of connectivity occurred, and everyone became wired all the time.   A limited space would be an overly cramped space if it went over its limits, and such was the connectivity.   Remember that line I referred before that agents keep on referring to “a lot of people are using the Internet at this time”?   Had it been evenly allocated, speeds would not have been a problem, but the overcapacity meant that not everyone were getting the same speeds.  The Capitalism of Internet Connectivity: an Unequal Distribution of Speeds.

I’d like to add that Telcos probably guessed the cause and tried to control the overcapacity, by first allocating more to those who paid more, and to the others imposed a flexible “curfew” of speeds so that no one consumer (unless they paid for it) could have more speeds than the average of them.   They were enforcing the same strategy as they employed to get consumers in the first place: consumers would not get fast speeds all the time so all consumers would get to “share” low or average speeds.

You see, they could not back out of their mistake of providing consumption to more people than was the capacity.   It would be unfair to those they provided to have this taken away from them.   So to adjust to the new reality they had two options: lower speeds for everyone, or average speeds for some at one time, and the others for other times—here they’re still banking on juggling the batches of consumers using it, and using the Fair Usage Policy to enforce the juggling act.

So you might be asking, why not just improve on the infrastructure to accommodate the new reality of consumption?   First, as the article suggests, the Telcos may commit to the same juggling act that started the problem in the first place, and also increase the rates to answer for the expenses.  (They are a capitalist venture, after all).

Second, and more importantly, building a broadband infrastructure in the Philippines is a Herculean task.   Sure, smaller countries like Singapore and Hongkong have fast speeds, but that was because their countries are landmasses, compared to the archipelagic character of the Philippines.   Luzon is a landmass, but Mindanao and especially Visayas is less so.   To connect the infrastructure would require, as the article describes, underground fiber network for the land, and submarine cables for islands.   Indonesia has a larger archipelago, but fewer islands.  We have 7,107.   From a capitalist point of view, the promised revenue just isn’t worth millions or even billions spent on installing the infrastructure.  Better to have weaker, “on-the-air” (I’m not quite sure about this, but basically broadband/mobile) infrastructure, than physical cabling which just seems impossible.   And, as the article explains, the Telcos are still recouping their “losses” from the installation of the existing structure.  It’s okay for a subsidized government entity to work on a loss, but we’re talking about a business here.   You do not compound a deficit with more deficit.

Finally, we are turning to government, particularly the NTC (and to an extent the current Administration), to “correctly regulate” and enforce the proper allocation of the Internet.   I do feel for the sentiment of the consumer, but even if the NTC try to enforce the Telcos to provide the subscribed speed for that subscribed rate, it just isn’t possible anymore.   Imagine 50 people eating a pizza good for 16.  So a lot of words about “infrastructure” would be bandied around, and that Telcos would have to do their part and improve the Internet backbone to accommodate more consumers.   Capitalists would only see expense.  In fact, the deficit would be too much.

Let’s not talk about the NBN-ZTE deal, which the article mentioned.   There’s too much water under that bridge.   What we can point out was that there was an attempt to improve on the existing broadband structure by the government.   There’s also the proposal to add a “improvement tax” (as I would call it) to Telcos that would be used to fund the broadband improvement.  You know very well that it would end up to consumers to shoulder that burden.

But I think it is still the best of a bad situation: to create a better broadband infrastructure, even if it means the figures stay red for a couple of years.   Would the government subsidize the Telcos for this, since the Telcos themselves would shy away from the expense?   Would they use the “Universal Charge” to fund or subsidize?   And couldn’t government take from existing taxes, since according to them the tax campaign has resulted in more revenues by the government?

But of course everything is speculation, and I am not an expert in that field.   What I do know is that the consumers are right in pointing out that they deserve to get the subscribed speed at the subscribed rate.   It’s law.   So they do need to come up with a solution (or better, a resolution), and improve on the speed, or reduce the rate to reflect the speed.   Either a way, it’s at a disadvantage to the capitalists, but that’s an investment for better infrastructure and better revenues from new consumers.  (whoops, they might end up juggling again)