Getting politicians on your side or influencing them is often the key to getting the policies you like implemented, however researchers and activists are often hesitant to approach and work with politicians due to various reasons. Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos of Philippines isn’t one of them. Not only has she found success with working politicians but also has excellent ideas that researchers can use to convince policy makers.
Santos wants to improve internet quality in the Philippines through increasing competition in the market, which is currently controlled by two large companies, to show how changes to the regulatory framework can influence the way broadband services are provided in the Philippines and how solutions can be formulated to challenges in the regulatory environment.
As mentioned, two large companies control the telecommunications sector in the Philippines. Duopolies are dangerous in any situation because the concentration of power among a few often leads to them collude on prices or output. Collusion results in consumers paying higher prices than they would in a truly competitive market. Companies can also collude to introduce high barriers to market entry, which removes competition that is a key element in a free market. Having a duopoly in a lucrative and important market like telecommunications is extremely damaging for a nation’s economy because having high quality and reasonably priced internet access is often linked with GDP growth.
And the duopoly has ensured that Philippines has really slow internet which is ranked as having 4th slowest 4G speeds, according to OpenSignal’s 2018 State of LTE. As expected from a market controlled by two companies, internet is also expensive. It is estimated that fixed broadband service costs 7.1% of gross national income per capita per month, this is well above the 5% affordability threshold recommended by the International Telecommunications Union. This has direct implications for the economy of the Philippines because there is a direct correlation between internet penetration and improved GDP. Since the two companies have complete control of the lucrative market, there is no incentive to improve service, to invest more or to expand coverage or serve areas that are not currently profitable.
This has ensured that the telecommunications infrastructure is focused only on the cellular mobile and on the urban centers, which is where these companies make the biggest profits. 45% of the Pilipinos, don’t have access to the internet and this includes 74% of all public schools. Those numbers are quite
This is where Grace enters the picture, for a long time, without any support at the beginning, she has been trying to improve internet access by allowing more players to come into the field and to change the policy regulatory environment. To enter the telecommunications market in Philippines, a company needs congress to pass a bill to give them a franchise to build a network, that company then needs approval from the regulator and that authorization is awarded by what’s called a quazi judicial process, after hearings in a court room setting where you have applicant who wants to get a license and then there will be opposers, i.e. the incumbent players who will need to justify why the regulators should not allow the application.
“These are very strange. In other countries there are simple, straight forward licensing regimes. But we have these archaic laws. These are high barriers,” she said.
Through years of research, Grace and likeminded researchers have found ways to dramatically improve access, quality, and cost of Philippine Internet service. Their reform agenda is listed on the report ‘From analog to digital – Philippine Policy and Emerging Internet Technologies, ‘ she coauthored. Their agenda is essentially to change the regulatory environment allowing new companies to come in and improve internet connectivity .
However given that two conglomerates have a lot of money and influence, it is not easy to make dramatic changes without support and this is where Grace has found great success by building coalitions and working with policy makers who are interested in change. This coalition, Better Broadband Alliance, ‘a coalition of citizens and stakeholders committed to supporting initiatives that bring better broadband services to the Philippines,’ has the support of a large number of stakeholders ranging from the Internet Society – Philippines Chapter to Japanese Chamber of Commerce Inc. The support of this coalition not only provides support for her research agenda but also makes her more credible when she approaches policy makers with her reform agenda. In the eyes of a politician, the coalition makes her a ‘made woman’ that has the backing of a large number of stakeholders and supporting her starts to make a lot of political sense.
“That is very important because it increases your chance of policy reform approved by decision makers. Coalitions also make you credible when you push for an agenda and you also have a tool to present policy makers and say that this idea has the support of this and that organizations. So you have to have that credibility as a researcher that other organizations trust as well,” she says.
While this works well in theory, the problem faced by many activists and researchers is identifying politicians who are interested and convincing those who are not the importance of taking up the proposals you advocate. Grace states that she was lucky in finding a Senator, Bam Aquino who was already interested in improving the internet connectivity in the country. Coincidentally, the senator was also the chairperson of the committee on science and technology of Philippines.
“So that was already identified for me. He already knew what he wanted and wanted somebody to back him up. He needed practical advice and that he has the proper evidence to support the reform agenda he was pushing forth. In other case we need to find that champion and even if that policy maker does not know that he can push for a particular agenda,” she said.
Internet is an important issue for young people and there are significant amounts of young people in many Asian countries. Also there are many politicians who want to reach out to the younger voters and convincing that taking up issues of internet connectivity, and addressing the digital gap between the rich and the poor, is most likely to be an interesting strategy for young researchers to get the support of policy makers.
Words by Rathindra Kuruwita