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Internet in the Philippines - Why So Slow?

The Country Badly Trails Neighboring Malaysia and Vietnam

To judge by conversations I've had, tweets that I've read, and my own experience, there is dissatisfaction with bandwidth speeds in the Philippines.

This is a serious issue in an age when high-speed connections are a primary driver of social and economic development, as they empower social networking, increase the ability of manufacturers and service providers to compete globally, and facilitate innovation.

Give me a connection fast enough and I can move the world. The problem in the Philippines, and in many other places, is the connections simply aren't fast enough.

A Relative Comparison
I did a recent study comparing bandwidth speeds against the relative wealth of societies. The idea is that a highly developed nation should be able to afford the infrastructure for higher speed connections. Thus, a 10- to 11-Mbps average in the United States is less impressive than a similar speed in, say, Russia.

By looking at bandwidth this way, on a relative basis, I uncovered some stars and some laggards.

Overall, the Top 10 countries - in terms of the amount of bandwidth they get for each dollar of per-person income - include several former Soviet satellites, Vietnam, and South Korea. The United States is in the middle of the pack of the 82 countries I surveyed.

By region, Canada leads North America, Chile leads Central and South America, Sweden leads Western Europe, Ukraine leads Eastern Europe, Kenya leads Sub-Saharan Africa, Morocco leads Northern Africa, and the UAE leads the Middle East.

In Southeast Asia, Vietnam is the clear leader among the "Big Six" economies, followed by Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

The Philippines' average speed of 1.7Mbps badly trails those of neighboring Malaysia (3.1Mbps) and Vietnam (9.2Mbps).

I have not yet factored the percentage of people who have access to the Internet into the formula, nor what percentage of usage is by individuals versus business and government. This could be a critical factor, for example, in weighing the Internet's benefit to society within the Philippines' democracy versus Vietnam's Communist regime.

Why So Slow?
But let's not distracted from the question at hand: why do we get such slow connections in the Philippines?

It's easy enough to blame the country's two major telcos - PLDT (which does business in the wireless space as Smart Communications) and Globe Telecom - and SkyCable, its primary DSL provider.

Although the telcos have significant international investors, all of these companies are run by some of the local oligarchs who own most things in the Philippines. The country's constitution forbids more than 40% ownership in most businesses, which of course hardly makes for a free competitive market in the country.

Telcos aren't the most competition-friendly companies anywhere, as Americans familiar with Verizon, AT&T, Canadians familiar with Telus and Rogers, and many others can attest. Cable companies are no better.

Back to Bandwidth
So moving away from debate about the Philippines' 60/40 rule, it could be that there is simply not enough bandwidth entering the country at this point, regardless of how the providers are owned and run.

Based on information provided by Philippine developer JP Loh, Michael Hamlin at TeamAsia, and the government's Office on Information and Communications Technology (OICT), there is about 1.18Tbps coming into the Philippines from eight fiber-optic submarine cables.

(A much smaller amount comes from two communications satellites, including Mabuhay One, funded partly by PLDT and launched into space by the Chinese in 1997.)

Yet that 1.18Tbps will support only one million 1Mbps running at full blast simultaneously. Given that an estimated 30 million people in the country access the Internet, the number of connections is certainly in the millions. Seems there's something not adding up well here.

The country is due for a major upgrade late this year, when the Asia Submarine-cable Express (ASE) comes online. This is a 4,300-mile, US$300 million behemoth serving Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore. It is funded partially by PLDT, and is said to have 15Tbps capacity, more than ten times the amount entering the Philippines today.

What Then?
How much of that will be provisioned to the Philippines is unknown, as is how much of the provisioning will be deployed.

The major source of frustration for me - and from what I've heard, from others - in the Philippines is not the speed per se but a pervasive failure by the providers to deliver what they promise.

My own situation is that PLDT, which has a major office two blocks from me, hasn't accepted new wired service requests for some time, Globe doesn't accept any new requests in my neighborhood, and SkyCable could only provide TV service. 

I had once choice, a wireless connection from PLDT's Smart subsidiary - it promises 1Mbps but usually delivers 200-300Kbps, throttled down to dial-up speeds most week-ends. As I said, dissatisfaction.

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.

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