Friday, December 16, 2005

Wireless Broadband is Transforming the Philippines

Politics in the Philippines is always on the boil. That’s why most people think this country is drifting to obscurity. But there are actually a lot of changes going on, such as the broadband revolution. Most of us may not notice it yet but it’s certain that the Philippines is undergoing deep-seated transformation. Read on if you want to know the details. And please leave some comments.

For Rolando Ceballos Jr, a 24 year old software engineer doing programming projects for Accenture, a management consulting firm based in Makati, the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf is almost like his second office. After five, he usually walks up to Greenbelt III to enjoy coffee while surfing the net using the shop’s Wi-fi hotspot.

“Here I could relax, enjoy the ambience while surfing the net or finishing my projects,” he said.

His regular presence there, however, is not actually about coffee, tea or salads. It’s really more about the broadband Internet access that Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf provides through its Wi-fi hotspot provided by the GlobeQuest, a subsidiary of the Globe Telecom. “It’s fast, about 11 megabytes per second, as against 56 kbps that the dial-up internet provides. It’s probably about a hundred times faster,” he said. “And of course, I enjoy the ambience, the creative atmosphere that the place provides. Most of the time, I do some of my [software programming] projects here after office hours.”

He admits that his kind of lifestyle is not cheap. To access the net, he regularly buys Wi-fi cards for passwords that enable him to use the hotspot. Each card costs a hundred pesos for a 50-minute access, but he said he doesn’t mind spending that much money because he achieves “higher productivity” compared with the old clunky dial-up Internet. And besides, his software engineering skills, he said, gets him more money than what the average white collar worker receives each month. “I like going out with friends; with greater availability of Wi-fi hotspots everywhere, I won’t miss a thing,” he said.

Wi-fi is short for “wireless fidelity,” a radio-frequency technology that allows gadgets like computers, laptops, and personal digital assistants to have high speed wireless access to the internet. One could access it through a hotspot or an access point where signals are beamed from a router to a-Wi-Fi enabled terminal such as a laptop or personal digital assistants.

“If really helps that our building has Wi-fi,” said Agnes, Coffee Bean Greenbelt 3’s manager. “It attracts clients like entrepreneurs, sales people, office workers, and yuppies [young urban professionals] who oftentimes transact business within our premises. Those clients usually come over here after lunch for coffee. They would sometimes stay for hours because of our Wi-fi.”

The cool factor
Mike Antigua, vice president for marketing of Airborne Access, the leading provider of Wi-fi technologies, in the country said that Wi-fi brings “cool factor” to cafes, restaurants, resorts, malls, hotels, airports, and hospitals, besides meeting people’s needs for instant communications.

That’s the reason, he explained, a lot of wi-fi equipped cafés like Starbucks and Seattle’s Best are sprouting near universities like the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City and the University of Asia and the Pacific in Ortigas. He said that even summer or semestral breaks, students with laptops continue to flock to these Wi-fi equipped coffee shops, drinking coffee, studying their lessons, chatting with friends, or surfing the Internet. Recognizing the demand for broadband access, some campuses like the Ateneo Professional Schools in Rockwell as well as the Mapua Institute of Technology along Gil Puyat Avenue in Makati have installed their own Wi-fi hotspots.

“I could have wished we had Wi-Fi during our college days,” said Ceballos who finished his computer science course in Bacolod City just about three years ago. “Because all you need is a Wi-fi enabled laptop and you can do research anywhere in the campus.”

Corporate strategy
For yuppies like Ceballos, Wi-fi and coffee shops are all about the “digital lifestyle.” For business establishments, however, it’s all about corporate strategy.

“The people come here and make use of our Wi-fi hotspot. On our part, we are able to sell a few more cups of coffee and dessert,” said Go. “It’s a good proposition, a good synergy.”

In an interview, he said that the outlook for the economy is not very optimistic so he felt he needed technologies and tools that could “maximize” the market. “Wi-fi is one of those indispensable tools.”
Go said he had been reading about wireless technology three years ago. “So when the people of Airborneaccess came calling, they did not find a hard time convincing us to install Wi-fi.”

Said Rosario T. Juan, area manager of Figaro’s Shanghai operations: “We identified it [Wi-fi] as one of our customers needs. Since we cater to a lot of career men and women and business travelers, we would see them meeting in our stores with their laptops or always checking their e-mail on other wireless devices. We then decided to offer it as a value-added service.”

“Since we also have Wi-fi here in our Shanghai stores, I do my job for Figaro Manila and China via satellite,” she added. “I do a lot of my communications work through e-mail and so my job relies a lot on a good and convenient internet connection.”

Antigua said they were having a tough time getting clients when they started the business in 2002. The big break came when Seattle’s Best tapped Airborneaccess for the installation of its Wi-fi hotspot. He explained that Seattle’s Best was apparently trying to catch up with Starbucks and it needed an extra drawing power to capture a bigger market share. After that, awareness of Airborneaccess’ services spread like wildfire and the firm now has installed 206 Wi-fi hotspots all over the country, about 87 percent of which are in Metro Manila. The rest of are in Baguio, Boracay, Calamba, Cebu, Cainta (Rizal), Dagupan City, Lapu-lapu City (Cebu), and San Fernando (Pampanga).

“We now receive three serious calls everyday from entrepreneurs who are exploring the possibility of having their own Wi-fi hotspot,” Antigua said. “Once we hit 200, it’s a lot easier to sell the service. We used to receive calls largely from cafes, restaurants, and hotels. This year, we have lots of calls from retirees, and housewives.”

Antigua says that these days many cafes are now equipped with Wi-fi. Among them are Seattle’s Best, Figaro, Starbucks, Cibo Nuovo, Off-Road Coffee, UCC Coffee, Coffee Beanery, Bon Appetit, Haagen Dazs Café, Café Provencal, Le Coer de France, and Gloria Jeans. Among the more popular restaurants that are starting to ride the Wi-fi bandwagon include Tequila Joe’s, Max’s, California Pizza Chicken, Sugarhouse, Green Tomato, Via Mare, Cravings, Pancake House, among others.

“There are now lots of demand for Wi-fi services even in areas outside Metro Manila, particularly in Bicol, Dagupan, Baguio, Cebu, Davao, and Tagaytay,” said Antigua.

The spread of the Wi-Fi further accelerated with the entry of Globe Telecom in the business through its GlobeQuest Wireless Internet Zone (WIZ). Initially launched in Greenbelt 3, the WIZ now provides hotspots to big business establishments nationwide including the Ayala Center Mall Cebu, Greenhills Theater Mall, Cebu Waterfront Hotel, Holiday Inn Clark, and Mactan International Airport.

But besides the “cool factor, among the major drivers for the proliferation of Wi-fi in urban centers are travelers and sales people who would like to get instant connection to the net. That’s why a lot of places within or near the premises international airports such as the Mactan International Airport and the Ninoy Aquino Airport have Wi-fi.

Antigua says the trend toward cheaper laptops is also boosting demand. “You can now buy Wi-fi enabled laptops at the cost of about P40,000. These laptops, he said, are a lot lighter, cheaper, and more powerful. There is also the growing popularity of personal digital assistants that can be used to access Wi-fi hotspots.”

Scratching the surface
Both Antigua and Ceballos, however, think the Philippines’s usage of Wi-fi has barely scratched the surface. Most Wi-fi users—they observe—are mostly into email; downloading of data, pictures and graphics from websites; and internet chats. Ceballos said once you have Wi-fi, activities like cheap or free computer-to-computer calls as well as video conferencing that would enable people and organizations to overcome the constraints of time and distance are now possible. Yet, these activities, he said, are not yet common. Wi-fi, itself—Ceballos said—has not extensively gone beyond the “lifestyle” aspect of the technology into homes, offices, and factories that could totally revolutionize society in terms of extensive economic opportunities to larger segment of society. The Wi-fi services themselves are limited to Metro Manila and a few urban centers, thus highlighting social critics fears about the growing digital divide.

A decisive factor to explain the limited impact of Wi-fi could be limited penetration of broadband facilities. Wi-fi is currently associated with products that follow the so-called 802.11 set of standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. The one in current use is the 802.11b standards operating within the 2.4 gigahertz band and transfers data at 11 megabits per second. Entrepreneurs who want to install Wi-fi hotspot in their premises have to obtain a digital subscriber line (DSL) provided by telecommunications companies like PLDT and Globe Telecom. With a DSL, one can now connect a router from which signals are beamed into Wi-fi enabled terminals like laptops or PDAs. How fast Wi-fi could spread to the countryside and to other segments of society, therefore, would depend on the diffusion of DSL or a similar technology.

Ramon Isberto, the chief of the public affairs group of both PLDT and Smart Communications, confirms this view saying that the “revolution” will come not with the spread of hotspots per se but the extensive availability of several broadband technologies in general. Wi-fi, he said has two applications: the common one, the hotspots, or the portable application and the other one which he calls the “Smart WiFi” that uses the transmission application to reach unwired areas of the country. This transmission application, he claims, will hasten that “revolution” in the country. “This one will break down the digital divide.”

Using line of sight platforms or those huge antennas that Smart uses for their cellular sites, signals are beamed into homes and building equipped with small antennas to receive the signals. Once that small antenna is cabled to computers, one could immediately have the Web access that is two times faster than the dial up Internet. “You can also create a hotspot with this set up,” said Isberto.
Isberto claims that this kind of service is now available in 17 cities and towns in Metro Manila; 18 provinces in Northern Luzon (about 100 towns); 15 provinces in Southern Luzon (about 82 towns); 11 provinces in the Visayas (about 42 towns); 22 provinces in Mindananao (about 60 towns). “Smart WiFi reaches as far as Basco, Batanes up North, and as far as Bongao, Tawi-tawi in the South,” he said. “It’s not yet taking the country by storm because we started rolling out outside Metro Manila.”

“This tech is not an end in itself; it’s an enabling technology,” he explained. “What makes it exciting is that it enables individuals and institutions to do things that would otherwise not have been possible for either technical or financial reasons. And that’s really the exciting part of going broadband.”

He said that the extensive spread of hotspots, Smart WiFi, and other emerging broadband technologies would soon have far reaching impact on the Philippine economy. He said that having extensive Wi-fi or broadband penetration would enable to call centers to expand to the provinces to solve the problems of English-speaking call center agents as well as create more opportunities for business process outsourcing particularly on medical transcription, legal contracts, and computer aided design.

“In the next five to seven years, most of the country will be blanketed with broadband,” predicted Isberto.

Isberto said that despite their promotion of Smart WiFi, PLDT and Smart Communications are also looking at emerging technologies like the Wi-Max or the “Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access” based on the new IEEE 802.16 standard.

This new technology, like Smart’s line-of-sight platform, uses fixed network infrastructure to connect one fixed node to several other fixed nodes like a radio tower communicating with antennas installed on top of buildings and homes over a radius of 30 miles. This implies that Wi-Max could integrate DSL, wide area networks, local area networks, or deliver Ethernet access to Wi-fi hotspots.

“It’s hard to predict the future, [especially] on what kind the kind of technology will be the real winner in terms technical and business features,” said Isberto. “The stand of PLDT and Smart is that we are examining all these technologies and we have projects in many of the main fields. So we are examining all of them and placing bets in all the major players. Wherever the market will go, we can do it.”

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