By Samuel Chan
It’s 2am and I find myself tossing and turning, sweating like a pig. I crack my eyes open, staring at the motionless ceiling fan under the faint moonlight, and can’t help but let out a sigh. It only means one thing: the electricity’s gone out again. Needless to say, tonight’s going to be another rough night.
Infrastructure here in the Philippines leaves much to be desired, and that’s probably an understatement. In fact, as I’m writing this post, it’ll have been more than 48 hours since water stopped flowing out of the taps in our house.
Even when transiting in Manila, the gold standard for the country, I was taken aback by the speed of the data connection with my newly-minted SIM card. It’s unfortunate because technology can benefit businesses so much, whether expanding customer reach or raising efficiency and cutting costs, while for improving communication for everyone else. It’s also ironic that the economy is largely driven by the business process outsourcing industry, for instance running call centres for MNCs (thanks to Filipinos’ generally high English proficiency), when domestic infrastructure is in shambles.
Take my host family for example, most of them don’t have data on their phones. That’s no surprise when an ‘unlimited’ data plan (actually clocked out at 3GB) costs 1000 pesos (HK$160) for one month – way more than a typical local could afford. And wifi? It’s only found at a few locations across town, mostly higher-end cafés, not to mention more often than not connections are pretty spotty.
According to Ookla, the Philippines ranks 21 out of 22 countries in Asia for Internet service speed. A Forbes article suggests that the situation is caused by a number of issues: first, constraints for laying down cables across 7,100 islands; and second, government bureaucracy.
The first problem could potentially be resolved with innovations like Google’s Project Loon, which provides low-cost, extensive connectivity via balloons instead of fixed networks. A number of developing countries, including India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, have already signed up, and yet the Filipino government remains quiet on its development locally. On the bright side, Facebook’s Free Basics is already up and running here, offering accessibility to tools many of us in the developed world take for granted.
The second problem is more of a long-term effort to remove the layers of bureaucracy involved, no matter at the national, municipal or barangay (village) level. Telecom operators are frustrated by the status quo, even as the government in return is demanding them to improve services.
No one wants to take the blame, and at the end of the day ordinary Filipinos are losing out. In a Pew Research Center survey of nationals in developing and emerging countries, the Philippines topped the chart in terms of perceived (positive) influence of the Internet on education and personal relationships at 88% and 76% respectively.
But then again, I suppose when basic utilities like electricity and water are unreliable for much of the rural population, like in the barangay we’re staying in, it’s hard to think about luxuries like fast Internet access.
Of course, technological advancement is a double-edged sword. Unlike Hong Kong, where everyone was glued to Pokémon Go as of leaving earlier last month (and still are), people here seem to live in the moment. Even carrying a smartphone is already somewhat of a novelty, at least in Jagna, and this is feeling I’ll reminiscence long after. Perhaps there really is no need to change after all.