Free WiFi in public places soon to be a law

MANILA, Philippines – The bill seeking to establish free internet in public places is just awaiting the final approval of Congress before President Rodrigo Duterte signs it into law.

The Senate and House of Representatives agreed on the final version of the measure on Monday, May 15. Both chambers, however, have yet to ratify the final version before it goes to Malacañang for the President’s signature.

Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, chair of the Senate committee on science and technology, said the challenge of implementation now falls on the shoulders of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) and the private sector.

Aquino, sponsor and co-author of Senator Bill 1277 or the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act, explained the DICT needs two and a half years for the National Broadband Plan. There must also be more private players to boost competition in the market. 

The NBP, one of the priorities of the Duterte administration, seeks to address the longstanding issue of internet connection quality in the Philippines, which is one of the slowest in Asia. (READ: What is the National Broadband Plan?)

“Our hearings have exposed the lack of infrastructure that we have. So we're reducing red tape for the private sector and we're also allotting the necessary budget para ang gobyerno mismo ang mamuhunan sa internet infrastructure sa ibang lugar (so that the government itself invests in internet infrastructure in other places),” Aquino said.

The DICT plans to implement the national broadband network plan "next year" as it finalizes its study.

This is the second time for the Philippines to attempt to build a national broadband network. In 2007, the government awarded the $329-million NBN contract to Chinese firm ZTE Corporation, but it was forced to scrap it later on, amid corruption allegations against president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband, Jose Miguel.

Aquino said Republic Act 10667 or the Philippine Competition Act will encourage the entry of more players in the telecommunications industry, leading to improved internet service at affordable prices.

Under the bill, the following will be covered by the program:

No overnight change

Aquino, however, said the rollout of free internet nationwide would not happen overnight due to the lack of infrastructure and geographical concerns.

But the bill, if passed into law, would be an excellent start, as it would allot funds for the program yearly.

But we're talking about 'yung 3rd, 4th, 5th municipalities, 'yung mga tourist destinations na medyo malalayo. 'Yun kulang pa ng imprastraktura, and ang gusto natin, all of these areas, all of these public places, may access tayo sa internet. So 'yung areas na 'yun matatagalan pa. Pero at the soonest possible time, dapat 'yung mga lugar na more or less may infrastructure na, with this law, kailangan talagang bilisan ng DICT,” Aquino said.

(But we're talking about those 3rd, 4th, 5th municipalities, those far-flung tourist destinations. These areas still lack infrastructure and we want all these public places to have Internet access. This would take some time. But at the soonest possible time, those places that more or less have the infrastructure in place, with this law, the DICT would need to hasten the process.)

To boost this, the bill mandates the release of permits to telecommunication companies within 7 working days. Red tape has been cited as one of the problems delaying infrastructure.

“Dahil batas na 'yan at talagang 7 days na 'yan para makakuha ng permit, wala na silang rason na hindi magtayo ng infrastructure sa ating bansa. We can hold them accountable. Kasi for this program, talagang ginawa natin 'yung lahat para mapabilis yung pagbuo ng infrastructure sa ating bansa,” Aquino said.

(Since it would soon be a law and it would require the release of permits within 7 days, they have no reason not to build the infrastructure in our country. We can hold them accountable. Because for this program, we did everything we can to hasten the building of infrastructure.) –

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a multimedia reporter focusing on media, technology, and disinformation.