Free internet now in public places

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By Lara Climaco | FilAm Star Correspondent

The Philippine government will extend free internet access at a minimum speed of 2 megabits-per-second to more public spaces nationwide following the August 2 signing of R.A. 10929 or the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act.

Computer laboratories and libraries at public schools, colleges and universities; the main lobby and hallway of government offices; as well as main assembly points at transport terminals, public parks, hospitals and health centers are among the priority areas for deployment of the upcoming government service, which has been piloted along EDSA since June 12.

“This will expand internet access across public spaces in the Philippines, including public schools to aid in teaching methods and enhance learning. There is also a provision for faster permitting for internet infrastructure, which is a key feature in the law to improve infrastructure development,” Sen. Bam Aquino, chairman of the Senate committee on science and technology, said in a press release.

“With this law, even citizens who cannot afford to avail of internet connection may have access to the worldwide web. This law will serve to level the playing field for the big number of Filipinos who cannot afford to pay for an internet connection, with those who can,” Tarlac Rep. Vic Yap, chairperson of the House committee on information and communications technology, said in a separate press release.

Aquino and Yap are principal sponsors of R.A. 10929, which can pave the way for wide-ranging reforms in the Philippine telecommunications industry and vastly improve the learning experience of more than 22 million students enrolled in public schools, about 1.4 million in state universities and colleges, and close to 1 million taking technical and vocational education and training. More than 70 percent of public schools nationwide do not have broadband access, according to data presented during a telecoms summit in March.

The law designates the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) as the lead agency for implementing the Free Internet Access Program in Public Places.

DICT is also mandated to arrange funding for the program, including official development assistance and public-private partnerships.

To kick start implementation, DICT is allowed to dip into government proceeds from spectrum user fees collected by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).

Budget documents show that PHP 2.3 billion in spectrum user fees are expected to be collected this year, which is but a fraction of the PHP 70 billion up to PHP 240 billion estimated cost of the infrastructure required to host free internet service and operate a centralized government portal.

During the launch of the National Broadband Plan in June, DICT officials announced the agency’s goal to provide free Wi-fi services across 100,349 public places across the country by 2026, prioritizing ports, airports, train stations and school buildings. The roll-out will cover 1,634 municipalities and cities nationwide within five years.

With the law addressing permitting constraints that have long hampered the network expansion of industry players, faster deployment may be expected over the next few years along with market opportunities for new internet service providers (ISPs).

“To promote an efficient and cost-effective delivery of the free internet access for public places, the DICT may partner with the private sector in the implementation of the program.

The excess capacity of private sector partners may be offered to deliver supplemental internet access service for a reasonable fee to the users in the areas where program facilities are located, provided that said individuals or entities register to the NTC as value-added service providers,” according to Section 6 of R.A. 10929.

The provision also encourages peering or the open transit of data traffic at domestic exchange points. ISPs are also given leeway in using emerging technologies to ensure universal coverage. For instance, they may directly source bandwidth from satellites.

Additionally, Section 8 of the law mandates the open and shared use of spectrum, giving DICT one year within which to draw up guidelines and to conduct public consultations.

Meanwhile, national and local government units involved in the permitting and certification of telecom infrastructure are required to act on applications within seven days, otherwise licenses would be automatically approved with the submission of a complete application and payment of corresponding fees. Only the occurrence of disasters would allow government agencies to extend the processing of applications beyond seven days.

The DICT has three months to draft the implementing rules and regulations of the new law.

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