ADVOCACY coalition Better Internet PH urges the 19th Congress to consider Open Access Bills as a priority legislation to improve broadband connectivity in the country.

Better Internet PH lead advocate Mary Grace Mirandilla said the bill will empower small players in various communities around the country to build their own network for internet connectivity.

“We are advocating for this measure because it actually contains all of the necessary reforms that we think will push everything forward as far as digitalization and internet connectivity is concerned,” she said Tuesday, June 6, 2023, during a United States Embassy-led media seminar on digital economy and cybersecurity in Cebu City.

The Open Access Bills have two versions. First is the more comprehensive Open Access in Data Transmission Bill which has been passed in the third reading by the House of Representatives in December 2022. The other one is the newer and simplified version - Open Access in Internet Services Bill which is, as of writing, still pending a hearing at the Senate.

Mirandilla explained that both versions are somehow alike, the only difference is the Open Access in Data Transmission Act has a provision on radio spectrum management.

In her talk, she shared that the bill essentially has two key reforms. First, it lowers barriers to market entry for internet providers and secondly, it makes network deployment faster and more efficient.

Outdated laws, licensing process

Mirandilla underscored that the Public Telecommunications Act (RA 7925) which is currently implemented in the Philippines is outdated as network operators are required to secure a Congressional franchise making non-telco internet service providers (ISPs) not allowed to build internet networks.

“We are the only country in the world that still requires, to my knowledge, Congress to issue a franchise before ISPs are allowed to build networks and connect their communities. What does that entail? If I were an ISP in Zamboanga, I need to go to Congress and ask it to pass a law as the first step to licensing my internet service provider so that I’ll be a telco even if I don’t intend to offer telco services, just internet,” she said.

Small players friendly

From being heavily served by few major telcos, the bill will pave the way for encouraging more small players as Open Access Bills are seen as small players friendly and pro-community.

“We need to empower community ISPs because we are an archipelago. There are places in the country where the big players do not go because it is not commercially viable for their business model. So anong mangyayari sa small communities? That is why we need a law that will empower communities to put up their own network,” she said.

According to the 2019 study of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), 53 percent of Filipinos are still offline. Another study in the same year by DICT’s National ICT Household Survey revealed that 70 percent of barangays in the country still have no access to fiber optic cables; 60 percent have no access to cellular towers; and 80 percent can’t connect to a free Wi-Fi. However, these numbers are believed to have improved since the Covid-19 pandemic as the government boosted efforts in connectivity in underserved areas.

Mirandilla is optimistic that the bill will help realize President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos’ goal of digitalization.

Apart from telcos, there are actually a number of existing community ISPs but most are cable TV operators offering fiber broadband but only within a specific area where they have a service franchise.

Other key features of the bill include simplifying the licensing process; clarifying the role of DICT on policy making and the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC’s) role in enforcement; setting performance standards for providers; promoting infra sharing; identifying prohibited acts such as throttling; and introducing penalties for violations.

Other bills supported by Better Internet PH are Faster Internet Service Act and Rural Wired Internet Development Act. ASP