Wiring Asean for progress

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GIL H. A. SANTOS

IN this 21st century information and technology age, economic imperatives require that all nations keep in step with the advances of modern cost-effective production to make quality finished goods, increase productivity, empower themselves to be globally competitive and maintain sustainable development under the umbrella of the rule of law and ethics.

Fulfilling these requirements (ideally), in the process, enables the nation to slowly but surely and steadily achieve better life and inclusive economic growth. As some economists have said it: then all boats (referring to nations and economies) at sea float (rise and fall) with the tide inclusively—all at the same time.

Incidentally, it should be kept in mind that while the economic factor has always been the driving force in human activities since man emerged on this planet, the territorial imperatives have also—by necessity—caused the military uses of information and technologies just as vital to survival.

But the destruction of nations and elimination of empires in human history by the military is the downside of information and communication technologies since time began.


For some background information, allow me to recall that it probably all started when Galileo was thrown out of the Catholic Church when he contradicted the papal pronouncement that the Earth was flat. Communication technologies surged by leaps and bounds when Heinrich Hertz discovered radio signals in 1886. Ten years, later Gugliemo Marconi got the patent for wireless communications and transmitted in 1910 the first cross-Atlantic wireless communication.

These developments were tested, further used and modernized in the two world wars. It advanced faster with the space race between the Soviet Union and the US in the Cold War after 1945. The Russians launched and won the first lap, the satellite Sputnik in 1957. But the US won the space race in 1969 when astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins landed on the moon on the spaceship Eagle.

The military side of information and communications technology takes such importance in this century because one nation’s capability to launch a satellite into space directly equates to its ability and technology to build and lob rockets with nuclear warheads into any other country anywhere on earth.

That will take another time in this space. This column today is limited to the needs and present communications connectivity—the economic upside—in the integration processes of the Southeast Asian region into a free-flowing market in the face of the current geopolitical and military competition between the superpowers and their allies.

The national leadership of the 10 member nations of the Association of Southeast Asia (Asean) realizes this. In fact, Indonesia leads the Asean members when it launched its communications satellite Palapa I on July 8, 1976. Vietnam followed with its Pham Tuan satellite on July 23, 1980—five years after the end of the Vietnam War. Malaysia and Thailand are third and fourth in the Asean satellite race, with the Philippines on the last slot.

In a forum conducted last week by the Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management at the Asian Institute of Management, the future of the Philippines’ connectivity with the rest of the region, and risks in the cyberspace sector were discussed. This much came out:

1. The Philippines has a road map for the direction of our information and communications requirements and how to attract private industry to participate’

2. There are risks and cyber crime larks around; and

3. There is current collaboration in the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippine East Asean Growth Area to fast-track the communications facilities of the Asean with the rest of the world.

Director Philip Varilla of the new Department of Information and Communications Technology reported that the Philippines indeed has a plan to push the country’s interconnectivity with the rest of the region and the world. But problems (challenges is the soft term for it) are blocking its implementation.

Out of the forum, these main problems emerged, among them:

Legally, there is a great deterrent to attract foreign capital—the telecommunications industry is capital-intensive that no single local corporation can afford it without a foreign partner. Foreigners are limited to 40 percent equity in the industry.

The licenses and business permits requirements for new corporations to start operations are so laborious and tedious it takes months before actual business can begin.

Congress-issued franchises are required and that goes through the long lawmaking process of public hearings and months of delay in operations.

Different technologies are needed to be used to connect–to wire—the archipelago’s more than 7,000 islands and 81 provinces and two autonomous regions with the national capital region.

There is a duopoly in the industry today that the entry of another telecommunication company requires these two main players must be consulted first if they consider a third player inimical to the industry.

There is a lack of cell sites and relay towers due to the environmental prerequisites of local government units.

The telecommunication industry is closely linked to national security issues but the government cannot and must not compete with private industry.

There is as yet no government integrated communications infrastructure (a sort of connectivity/clearance center) to address the national security concerns.

The government needs more capital to implement the plan.

Mr. Ace Esmeralda, an international crime prevention specialist and one of the few anti-terrorism specialists in the country, who heads the AAA Risk Management Inc., warned that cyberspace crimes committed in this century require law enforcers and professional anti-cyberspace crimes to keep ahead of the criminals. This means, concerned government entities must be constantly informed of the developments in their own fields with continuing personnel upgrading and training.

In short, the professional anti-cyber crimes specialists must be well rounded in all factors affecting national and private corporate developments on the local, regional and global levels—from simple robbing private bank accounts to national security concerns.

Dr. Alfredo Panizales, executive vice president of the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippine East Asean Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) Submarine-Terrestial (BEST) Cable Corp. outlined the current work to interconnect the region’s communications infrastructure with the rest of the world.

The BIMP-EAGA communications project is a joint effort of the four Asean members’ government-owned corporations (except the Philippines which is represented by the EA Trilink Corp., a private firm designated by the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM).

The first phase of the BIMP-EAGA BEST cable project connects Kota Kinabalu in Sabah to Brunei, and will be completed by the end of this year. The second phase connecting Kota Kinabalu and Tawau is finished and part of the Pan-Borneo terrestrial project.

The third phase, the undersea cable from Tawau to Parang in Central Mindanao facing the Illana Bay and the Moro Gulf, will be started at the end of this month and is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2018. By the start of 2019, it should be fully operational.

This will mean a lot to consumers in the Philippines because it will bring down the costs of internet services in the country. From Parang, any private service provider can distribute the broadband services to the rest of the archipelago and give the two giant telecommunications firms now some competition.

Currently, the Philippines has the most expensive (to consumers) internet service, and the slowest, among most of the Asean members because of the duopoly.

While the two giant telecommunications service providers now charge between $400 to $600 mbph, Panizales said, the average Asean rate is only between $10 to $40 mbph.

Panizales left the arithmetical exercise to the forum participants but logically it should not be more than $100 at the most. Consumers like you and me will just have to wait until the early months of 2019 to see for ourselves.

Yet, we must keep in mind the realities of the times.

Comments and reactions to ghasantos2017@yahoo.com. Gil H. A. Santos is president of the Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management, and teaches journalism and geopolitics in the Lyceum of the Philippines University. He is also a veteran correspondent who covered Southeast Asia.

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