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Letters from Davao: ‘The National Broadband Network’ By Jun Ledesma

The first time we heard of the National Broadband Network was during the time of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Prior to PGMA era there were actually attempts at establishing a national communications backbone but these never took off from the planning stage. It was only during PGMA’s term that NBN was seriously attended to. Then Department of Transport and Communications Sec. Leandro Mendoza submitted the plan to then House Speaker Jose de Venecia. As we all know, the study was finalized by National Economic Development Authority then headed by Romulo Neri. Neri in turn drafted the plan with the assistance of Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada, then head of Philippine Forest Corporation.

The multi-million-dollar NBN project was hobbled by controversies. The son of House Speaker, Joey De Venicia, offered to undertake the project but his company, Broadband Philippines – capitalised only for P300,000 – is far from being qualified. Then ZTE Corporation, a Chinese telecom giant offered to undertake the project, a deal which was hatched over a game of golf. Former Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos was reported to have brokered the deal. The negotiation took a bad turn when the characters involved in the NBN project failed to agree on how to share the “commission”.

The deal later became a national scandal, even dragging the name of First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, following confession of Jun Lozada who alleged that kickbacks were given to those involved in the NBN deal. Lozada who became an instant celebrity and was dubbed “whistle blower”, claimed there was attempt to kidnap and silence him and sought refuge in a nunnery. Of course this was a fake story.

At the height of the controversy, President Arroyo cancelled the project. Abalos was charged in the Sandiganbayan but was later acquitted. On the other hand whistle blower Lozada, who as chairman of Philippine Forest, was found guilty of graft in a separate case involving award of public land for Jatropha development project to his brother.

From then on, NBN was forgotten, giving rise to a duopoly that was nurtured by the Aquino government that was a veritable puppet of the oligarchy. As I write this piece 45 % of the entire country is either not served or underserved and if that is not miserable enough the rest of the 55% suffers from the most expensive and yet the most sluggish Internet speed in an era where the world speaks of internet of things and 5G technology.

Shame.

Early in his term President Rodrigo R. Duterte was even advised with a smack of ridicule by no less than PLDT big-shot Manny Pangilinan to leave the telecommunications industry to the players, meaning PLDT/Smart and Globe Telecom, for reasons that telecom is only for the experts. Between the two they control the 700 MHz frequency which the government awarded for free to seven applicants which were later acquired for a song by SMC and sold to Smart and Globe for P69-billion. It was smart deal meant to consolidate the monopoly.

When Duterte got wind of the how the virtual control of the vital frequency by the duopoly, he demanded the return of the frequency. What PLDT/SMART surrendered was the frequency of Cure Telecom for which Pangilinan demanded a price of P2 billion. When Duterte threatened to deploy BIR examiners PLDT relented and gave up the frequency for free.

The public was made to believe anti-trust body succeeded in compelling the duopoly to return part of the 700 MHz frequency. Well, in fact they did, but they saw to it that these are too scrimp and too narrow for the other players to use.

The appointment of USEC Eliseo Rio Jr. as Acting Secretary of the Department of Information and Communications gave him the impetus to pursue the NBN project. Through tedious processes and negotiations with the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines and the National Transmission Corporation they finally signed a Tripartite Agreement that would allow DICT to make use of the idle dark fiber assets of National Transmission Corporation (TRANSCO) which National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) maintains.

While the project comprehends of the bandwidth derived from Facebook 2-terabit connections from either Hong Kong or Guam, Secretary Rio is looking at other options to roll out internet broadband fix-line and Wi-Fi connectivity ahead of FB. The FB submarine cable which will be landed in two points in Poro Point in San Fernando, and in Bawang, La Union in the west and cut across the province to Baler, Quezon in the east. This submarine cable is expected to be finished early 2019 still.

However, expect DICT with the help of Finance Sec. Sonny Dominguez to come up with advance solutions.

This man Rio has a lot of options up his sleeves.

The partnership of DICT and TRANSCO of the Department of Finance provide a synergy that would now fast-track the NBN program of the Duterte administration. What differentiate this from the mothballed ZTE-NBN project is that it will have a wider coverage and will provide high-speed internet services and free WIFI to government offices, local government units to include barangay offices and public schools.

And this one is corruption free!

Rio proves to be the perfect man for DICT. Am personally impressed by strategy that he had taken so far which translates to saving billions of pesos for the government. Of course we will be remiss if we do not recognize the efforts and man hour spent by TRANSCO President Melvin Matibag in arriving at this hallmark tripartite agreement with NGCP. It will not be a surprise if DICT and TRANSCO will conceptualise yet another strategy which would consolidate the assets and expertise of the two government agencies in providing what the telecom duopoly for years failed to offer to the public. (Jun Ledesma)

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