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Create-Destroy, Divide-Connect: The Political Economy of the Department of Information and Communications Technology’s “Free Wi-Fi for All” Program

Final paper for my Political Economy of Media class

Given the changing nature of capitalism in this age of information and communications technology (ICT), Jonathan Hardy’s examination of the complexity of power dynamics and modalities of power and the influence of power on both Internet provision and on policy-making in his book “Critical Political Economy of the Media: An Introduction” became quite apparent in a number of critical events in the Philippines’ ICT sector, particularly those that ensued in the country’s last three administrations to date. From restructuring government offices to rebranding government projects, the series of events leading to the recently established Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) reflected the political dynamics affecting public service undertakings, as well as government offices that needed to adjust to sometimes gradual, sometimes abrupt changes in their midst.

In keeping with its mandate to accelerate and develop the Philippines’ ICT sector, the then Department of Science and Technology – Information and Communications Technology Office (DOST-ICTO), which was created through Executive Order (EO) 47 during the early days of Pres. Benigno Aquino III’s term after he dissolved former Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT), withheld or cancelled a number of projects and programs transitioning to the new administration. This included the supposed implementation of the Philippine Digital Strategy (PDS), the government’s master plan on “how to actively use information and communications technology in promoting economic and social growth, and in promoting efficiency in the delivery of public service in the country.”

By the tail end of Aquino’s term, the ICTO launched the “Juan Konek: Free Internet Access in Public Places Project.” A few months later, the DICT Act of 2015, also known as Republic Act (RA) No. 10844, was enacted and it officially took effect on June 2016, which coincided with Rodrigo Duterte’s win at the Philippine presidential election. With the new administration in place, “Juan Konek” eventually rebranded as “Pipol Konek: Free Wi-Fi Internet Access in Public Places Project,” justifying the change to make the brand more inclusive. When Duterte appointed Gregorio Honasan II as the new DICT secretary, it didn’t take long for “Pipol Konek” to be rebranded once more, this time as the current “Free Wi-Fi for All,” justifying the change to make the brand simpler and easier to understand by the public. It is worth noting that the said project branding changes, revocation of programs, and dissolution and restructuring of offices always coincided with changes in leadership. Is this a political strategy of the new person in office for full credit on pioneering projects instead of working on those from prior leadership? Is it a natural response of the new leadership to start with a clean slate? Is it a justifiable means for the office operations to evolve and avoid becoming outdated? This last question conforms with the statement of Joseph Schumpeter about the “creative destruction” associated with the ICT revolution. Being a central fixture in his view of capitalism, creative destruction in the cases presented here not only focused on the obsolescence of older technologies, business models, and industry structures – it also pointed to the obsolescence of certain government policies and regulations. Schumpeter also presented how organizational development or even revolutionary changes in the economic structure would require incessantly destroying the old and creating the new.

According to the “Free Wi-Fi for All” Project Management team, both “Juan Konek” (2015 to 2018) and “Pipol Konek” (2018 to 2019) were categorized as “projects” – with each project having a designated budget with expected output and exact time of delivery and each project ending with the transfer of everything to the end user. Meanwhile, “Free Wi-Fi for All” (2019 to present) is developed as a “program brand,” meaning it will be a continuous initiative in the form of “service provisioning.” Considering the scope of this program, the budget became institutionalized as RA No. 10929, the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act, which led to the creation of the Free Public Internet Access Fund (FPIAF). Funding shall be secured through the Spectrum Users Fee (SUF) collected by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), as well as under the annual General Appropriations Act (GAA). 

In “The Political Economies of Media: The Transformation of the Global Media Industries,” Dwayne Winseck’s take on neoclassical political economy, which highlights the “marketplace of ideas” in democratic societies, expounded on how state intervention can lead to bringing a smaller number of essential services such as Internet access to communities not served by private businesses, especially those in far-flung areas. The “Free Wi-Fi for All” program reportedly aims “to digitally empower Filipinos by enhancing Internet accessibility and minimizing the digital divide so that economic, social, and educational opportunities will be bolstered.” Crucial to its implementation is the need for efficient and effective technical infrastructure for nationwide provision of free Internet in public places including national and local government offices, hospitals, rural health units, learning institutions, libraries, parks, plazas, and other open areas, and transport terminals. The public bidding process primarily led to contracts with Smart/PLDT and Globe and these providers were classified in the program as “managed services.” Based on the program’s Terms of Reference (TOR), the main challenge in pursuing this public-private initiative is penetrating the many areas that remain underserved or unserved by broadband service. According to these participating telecommunication companies, the reason why these areas remain underserved or unserved is because “the market would not support the necessary ROI”. They explained that the deficit in the available services would prevent opportunities and benefits from reaching the people in those areas. However, it is interesting to note that the TOR indicated a recently updated data from a World Bank report saying that every 10 percent increase in broadband connectivity would result in a 1.38 percent increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – suggesting how the project would offer great potential to contribute to the country’s economic development. This makes a lot of sense considering the mutually beneficial relationship between the government’s public service initiative and the private sector participants that are said to “redound to greater economic benefit through expanded services for everyone,” as further noted in the TOR. Moreover, the concept of a “contestable market” would encourage program participation by these companies despite having no clear sustainable returns expected early on. In contestable markets, the incumbent players, in this case, these Internet network providers, have opportunities to maximize their dominant position of being pioneer suppliers in a large-scale, long-term government program to ensure their survival in cases of creative destruction and/or the potential domination of their future rivals. Being in the program keeps them safe inside a government-driven ecosystem where they can remain relevant, and in the long term, maintain power and control over the country’s ICT sector.

As Robert McChesney noted in “Global Media, Neoliberalism & Imperialism,” the contemporary society is generally characterized as “one of globalization, technological revolution, and democratization where media and communication play a central, or perhaps, even a defining role.” The “Free Wi-Fi for All” program supports the technical revolution in digital communication of the country. Indeed, the power of the Internet works as a great tool of production, revolutionizing the productive forces in the country’s economic system. As of November 2019, the DICT already reported a total of 3,084 operational sites in key cities nationwide. The program brief provided for this paper reported that over 5 million users across 77 provinces plus Metro Manila and 782 localities already accessed the network. Out of 1,634, a total of 1,302 Memoranda of Agreement (MoA) with local government units pertaining to program adoption were secured. Similar MoAs with 18 provincial government units and 31 national government agencies, as well as a Joint Memorandum Circular with the Department of Education (DepEd), were signed. Given the statistics, this national program clearly provides more economic opportunities across the country. It is not only the contracted businesses that gain from the program – Filipinos from different regions, as well as the local government units and the rest of the public places with Wi-Fi connection in place, all benefit from it. More people can access the Internet and more people can get jobs to service program operations. Another crucial impact of the program is the government’s capability to install Internet hotspots as emergency communication access points in disaster-stricken areas including command centers, emergency operation centers, and evacuation areas. This proved to be very helpful during the July 2019 earthquake in Batanes and the October 2019 earthquake in North Cotabato where information and communication relief for the responders and evacuees were made available through free Wi-Fi sites from the “Free Wi-Fi for All” technical infrastructure. In the near future, this program should also play a big role in efficiently modernizing public access to government services.

Currently, the DICT mainly uses its official “DICT – Free Wi-Fi for All” Facebook (FB) page and its official website for marketing the program. Both work as a repository of program-related events and updates since the launch of the project as “Juan Konek” to the current program brand as “Free Wi-Fi for All.” The program’s FB posts from 2016 to 2019 mainly featured Wi-Fi installation-related activities and trainings. Given how this government agency that is mandated to take care of the country’s ICT sector widely uses Facebook for information dissemination and social media interaction, this reflects how Facebook remains as a social media stronghold in the country. Politically, this platform remains crucial in determining how those in power utilize new media for political and economic gains. As more and more Filipinos benefit from free Internet access, social media, particularly Facebook, will continue to thrive as those in power will focus their media communication strategies in this platform in order to effectively reach their target users.

During Arroyo’s time, the biggest controversy involving the CICT was the NBN-ZTE deal, which was supposed to establish the national broadband network in the country. As reported by Rappler and ABS-CBN in July 2019, the DICT faced its biggest controversy to date with the “Free Wi-Fi for All” program being flagged by the Commission on Audit (COA) for giving the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a private entity, more power over the program than it legally should – with the deal allowing the entire infrastructure of the then called “Pipol Konek” project part of the UNDP’s assets. The raising of this issue to DICT employees during the official interview conducted for the purpose of this paper, which was officially approved by Secretary Honasan through a letter request, ended with a “no comment” response and the only information expressed during the interview of an employee who doesn’t want to be named was that the department didn’t want to answer the accusations from the news reports because the opinions among DICT executives didn’t match with one another. Noticeably, no news reports involving DICT’s response to this issue are readily available in major online news sites as of this writing. Clearly, this is a big issue that should be addressed, yet DICT press releases only focus on the positive reports about the program.

From the words of the DICT, “Internet access, after all, should not be a privilege enjoyed by few but a right enjoyed by all.” New media is undoubtedly a powerful tool for communication and processing of information. After examining the nooks and cranny of the “Free Wi-Fi for All” program, it is indeed a big leap forward for the country’s economic development. It has a huge impact in modern Filipino culture and how the country corresponds to globalization. It fuels the needs of those in power to keep their control over the country’s various sectors. Considering all these, social responsibility and public good should also be championed by the DICT in this age of fake news, misinformation, hacking, and other new media concerns. Apart from its reports focusing on the activation of the free Wi-Fi sites across the Philippines, the DICT should also prioritize conducting nationwide trainings focused on Internet media and information literacy and new media user accountability for Filipinos.

Works Cited:
Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.

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