PLDT Inc, Globe Telecom and Converge on Friday scrambled to assure the public that internet connections will not slow down during five-day long emergency repairs on an undersea data cable. This underscores the obvious -- in quarantine life, data has never been this important to daily living.
Sarcasm filled Twitter and Facebook: connections are much slower in real life than advertised. The University of the Philippines Diliman Student Council called for the cancellation of synchronous online classes, while publications like Grid Magazine postponed their events. If that isn’t evidence enough of the public’s trust issues with internet providers, it also makes clear that the Philippines is only as good as its internet infrastructure during this pandemic.
“There is a lot of talk about defining the new normal in the post-COVID world and for me ‘new normal’ needs to include broadband access for all," Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nation’s internet and telecoms agency, was quoted in a Reuters report.
At the start of the pandemic, businesses, schools, government offices, and other services were forced to go online as the string of lockdowns left people holed up in their homes for almost seven months now.
Although the Philippines has bagged the top spot for heaviest internet usage worldwide, the country remains a largely rural country whose information technology infrastructure leaves much to be desired, according to University of the Philippines Professor Danilo Arao.
This makes video streaming, online classes, and connecting with loved ones –- activities that are regarded as key to pandemic survival -- an even greater challenge for citizens of a country whose internet speed is considered slowest in the Asia-Pacific.
If it's already hard enough for those who have access to internet connection, what more for those who don't?
“One of the biggest drivers of inequality today comes with who has access to technology and particularly to internet services. That is widening the gap and COVID has just put that right at the centre,” Kanni Wignaraja, head of the U.N. Development Program for Asia-Pacific, also quoted in the same report by Reuters.
Governments must ensure that all citizens, especially women, elders, and those in rural communities, have access to affordable internet to “avoid being left behind," she said.
In March, universities called for mass promotion, especially for underprivileged students. Mass promotion means students advance to the next higher grade or year level. Various organization also clamored for a complete academic freeze in order to accomodate students and teachers alike who cannot afford sustaining the online classes setup while a virus still lurks around.
Despite public outrage over uneven access to technology, the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) pushed through with online classes.
As President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to shut Globe and Smart should they fail to improve services in December, South East Asian telco experts said the state and business should work hand-in-hand during the pandemic.
"To improve internet affordability and access longer-term, governments, telecom companies and mobile operators should work together", said Anju Mangal, Asia Lead for Alliance for Affordable Internet.