POSTSCRIPT / August 21, 2022 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Hitching on Starlink a bumpy space ride

Government officials must aim high in looking for ways to provide the “Free WiFi for All” promised under Republic Act 10929, but also keep their feet firmly on the ground so as not to be carried away by low-orbit commercial star talk.

The "Free WiFi" idea faded out after the May 9 elections. DICT wants to revive it using Elon Musk's Space-X/Starlink satellites. Photo: CNN Philippines

A breaking story is about the “Free WiFi” project being hitched by the Department of Information and Communications Technology to Starlink, an expensive program of Elon Musk, the world’s biggest billionaire, using satellites to link far-flung areas.

Excited DICT bureaucrats announced in a presscon on July 27 that the government will “fully pay” to roll out Starlink locally – when even the US government has just canceled its $888.5 million subsidies for Starlink internet service to rural areas due to claims issues.

Chair Jessica Rosenworcel of the US Federal Communications Commission said on Aug. 10 that Starlink’s subpar Internet speeds and high user costs had led to the rejection of the request for subsidy.

A Starlink subscriber must have a $599 satellite dish as a terminal, and pay $110 in monthly fees to use the broadband service. A constellation of satellites operated by Elon Musk’s Space-X in lower orbit provides satellite-based internet to previously unserviceable areas.

The FCC said Space-X/Starlink failed to show it could deliver the promised service. The agency also noted that its speeds have been declining, with some customers experiencing speeds under 5 Mbps (megabits per second) during peak hours.

The DICT itself has been called out by the Commission on Audit. In 2019, the COA blasted it for handing ₱1.4 billion to the United Nations Development Program for a “Free WiFi” project in remote areas that the UNDP was to manage for a ₱65-million fee. An audit showed that the DICT lacked measures to ensure the sustained operability of the sites.

The UN agency got an Australian contractor, Speedcast, whose record reportedly includes its filing for bankruptcy in the US, and getting caught by our Bureau of Customs smuggling on several occasions. That may be an old story, but it does not speak well of how DICT handles its budget and manages projects.

Before the last Congress adjourned, btw, Sen. Imee Marcos moved to investigate the UNDP/DICT collaboration on the Free WiFi project. She should share what she knows about the profligate use of public funds in big projects.

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The DICT reported in October 2021 that there were 11,203 Free WiFi sites installed in the country, an increase from the 10,661 sites nationwide reported in mid-August.

It said special attention was given to internet connectivity in “geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas”. It added that it launched Free WiFi sites in the previous month on 39 locations in Basilan, 28 in Sulu, and 34 locations in Tawi-Tawi.

From the previous annual average of 800 sites a year from 2016 to 2019, the DICT said, it activated 4,305 sites in 2020 as mandated by RA 10929 or the “Free Internet Access in Public Places Act”.

The sites, however, apparently failed to provide sustained connectivity nationwide when internet-based distance learning was adopted to go around the COVID-19 pandemic that had made face-to-face classes risky for everybody.

Industry records show that from 2016 to 2021, the DICT set up only 11,618 Free WiFi sites against a target of 34,442, for which the government allocated ₱12.1 billion for the five-year period. Of that amount, ₱10.34 billion had been obligated, or ₱890,000 per set-up site.

Upon verification of the reported sites, COA found only 6,658 actually existed, which breaks down to a cost of over ₱1.553 million per site. However, as of April 13, 2022, of the 6,658 actual sites, only 2,890 were found to be operational. That’s a startlink ₱3,577,855 per site!

The DICT’s five-year record of 2,890 operating sites is only 8.4 percent of the total number envisioned, with a government budget of ₱12.1 billion, of which 85 percent has already been spent.

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On the Philippines’ internet download speeds, the Ookla Speedtest Global Index’s July 2022 report said the country’s fixed broadband median speed rose to 75.62 Mbps from the 68.94 Mbps of the previous month, while the average download speed was 102.93 Mbps.

Ookla said the country’s mobile median download speed also increased to 22.56 Mbps from 21.41 Mbps in the month before. The average download speed for mobile clocked in at 52.33 Mbps.

With the improvement in its download speed, the Philippines is now listed as 46th out of 182 countries in the Ookla rankings for fixed broadband, and 84th out of 140 countries for mobile.

Despite many Filipinos’ thinking that their country is the “social media capital of the world”, it is mentioned among those having the slowest internet speeds in Southeast Asia.

Comparison site Cable, which has ranked 224 countries and territories with the fastest broadband internet based on over 1.1 billion speed tests, reports that the global average broadband internet speed is 28.69 Mbps.

Liechtenstein has maintained the fastest broadband with an average speed of 211.26 Mbps, while Turkmenistan has the slowest speed of 0.50 Mbps. It would take over 1.5 hours to download a 5GB movie file in Turkmenistan while someone in Liechtenstein could do it in under three minutes.

Cable says that 94 countries or territories have average speeds below 10 Mbps, a speed deemed by UK telecoms watchdog Ofcom to be the minimum required to cope with the demands of a typical family or small business.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 21, 2022)

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