To resolve sluggish internet speeds in the PH, are undersea fiber-optic cables and satellites the solution?
In what seems to be an abrupt transition to everything digital given the quarantine restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines has found itself under a tough situation. Along with the much greater need to get connected to the internet, the country is plagued with insufficient surfing speeds.
Recently, we ranked 119th out of 175 countries in a Speedtest Global Index test for mobile internet speed. As of September this year, the average download speed of mobile internet is at 16.89 Mbps, with upload speeds at 5.57 Mbps. Meanwhile fixed broadband speeds are at an average download speed of 26.08 Mbps, with upload speeds trailing closely at 26.07Mbps. These numbers fall greatly behind the global average.
The main difference between fixed broadband and mobile internet is how they are used; the former can only be accessed in a fixed space or area and is delivered via a phone line, while the latter can be used on-the-go through a mobile network connection via a sim card.
Fixed broadband internet speed, which refers to what we know as high-speed internet access, comes in various forms: through digital subscriber lines, cable modems, fiber technology, wireless connections, and satellite broadband. In the same Speedtest report, the Philippines ranked 106th.
However, Department of Information and Communications Technology Secretary Gringo Honasan remains rather optimistic, after telling the House of Representatives last September 15 that “without going into figures, we [in the Philippines] are not doing too badly.” But we are.
Going online is no longer a choice but a necessity, with millions of Filipinos grappling with lockdown protocols on work setup, academic learning, media production and consumption, and socialization. Despite a 15 percent dip in mobile internet speeds, we still ranked first on social media usage during the quarantine period, proving our reliance on the internet as a digital-savvy nation. But will our internet infrastructure keep up with people’s demands?
The Cost of Connectivity
Assessing the state of the country’s internet connectivity has always been an issue of bandwidth, or specifically, the range of frequencies used to transmit signals. Low bandwidth, especially when processing large amounts of data in a given period of time, leads to slower network performance and internet speeds. The provision of higher bandwidth in the country mainly relies on internet service providers (ISPs), which are led by telecommunications giants such as PLDT, SkyCable, and Globe Telecom. Despite the diversity, there is still a significant lack of viable options.
ISPs market the availability of fiber internet connection — which supposedly ensures internet speeds of up to 940 Mbps — but also hold this service as a luxury due to their rates. Customers have to pay at least PHP 999 to as much as PHP 1,899 for a fiber internet plan from these ISPs. However, the provisions vary greatly in speeds, with some ISPs offering plans with 10, 25, or 30 Mbps.
These prices are steep, especially in comparison with neighboring Asian countries. Singapore, whose average download bandwidth is 226.60 Mbps, offers speeds of 60 Mbps or more at PHP 1,601. China, whose average download speed runs at 138.66 Mbps, offers the same baseline speed at PHP 1,005. And while Vietnam only has an average download speed of 56.83 Mbps, the same baseline speed only comes at PHP 580 in their country.
Given the rates and their corresponding broadband internet speeds in the table, one may question whether or not the service being paid for is what the people deserve. Financial constraints continue to be a restriction for poorer communities and households, especially in a time of need. However, as there is no clear-cut answer to this problem, one can only wonder as to what adjustments these ISPs are willing to make.
From the Ground, Under, and Up
A lack of internet infrastructure could be one of the problems, which is pointed out by data from the American Chamber of Commerce and Industry. For instance, the Philippines has over 17,850 cell sites as compared to fellow Southeast Asian neighbor Vietnam, which has over 90,000.
Such is the deciding factor for the reliability of mobile internet speeds — especially the availability of 2G, 3G, and 4G technology across the country. As most of our cell sites only cater to 2G and 3G, no matter the capability of sim cards and mobile internet, the infrastructures dictate that there are limits. This is the main reason 5G, which is claimed to be faster than the current speeds of 4G internet, remains in its infancy in the country, as only select locations in Mega Manila have capable cell sites that power such an advancement.
5G, as enticing as it may sound because of its promise of high-speed internet connection, uses shorter frequencies of only up to 500 meters that can be barred by physical obstacles like walls. This means that even if there are 5G-capable smartphones available in the Philippine market, users will only be able to experience the new technology in a limited capacity due to the lack of infrastructure. They may be able to access 5G along a sidewalk in Bonifacio Global City, for example, but will lose the connection once they enter their office building.
What then could be viable solutions? Investments in telecommunications are not an idea foreign to us, as the country is among the top 10 worldwide with the greatest investments in the said industry. Looking into investments could be most probable and economical, and some of these options could include satellite broadband and the development of already existent underwater fiber-optic internet cables.
As of July 2019, there are 380 operating underwater cables around the world, with many being funded by tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. While most of the world continues to go mobile and wireless, the data being transmitted via these underwater cables is steadily growing.
Another key development in recent months has been the introduction of Starlink — a constellation of telecommunications satellites launched into space by SpaceX, with assistance from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Plans were initially revealed by SpaceX CEO and tech mogul Elon Musk in March of 2020, and satellites were brought up to the low-Earth orbit (LEO) region — having an altitude of as high up as 1,000 km or as low as 160 km from Earth’s surface. Currently, Starlink is in beta testing for latency and connection, with over 700 satellites now in LEO.
At Greater Altitudes
The provision of satellite broadband has been years in development. In what seems to be a race of who gets to space first, the Elon Musk-owned company SpaceX has bested Facebook and Amazon in making this promise a reality.
Simply put, satellite broadband is the provision of internet connectivity through satellites. The delivery of satellite broadband internet, however, may be distinguished between two kinds: via geosynchronous satellites and via LEO satellites. The key difference between the two is the distance of the satellites’ orbits from Earth’s surface.
Geosynchronous satellites orbit Earth at a fixed place more than 35,000 km from the planet’s surface, and these satellites have been proven reliable technologies for television as early as the ’90s. Although these are dependable technologies, one issue posed by geosynchronous satellites, however, is latency, or the total round-trip time for data to travel. As these satellites are positioned way above Earth’s surface, data may take a while to be sent and received back, causing slight delays. Considering how video calls are used more than ever for meetings and classes that require instant feedback, this could prove to be a significant problem.
On the other hand, LEO satellites are made up of hundreds to thousands of smaller satellites, such as the Starlink constellation. As these orbit closer to Earth’s surface, data would not have to travel as far, minimizing latency and the possibilities of lagging. However, these satellites do not come without cons.
Imagine a kite with a string held by a human on the ground. Once the string is either cut or let go by the human, the connection between the kite and the human is lost. As these satellites are designed to stay connected to the ground station like the kite to a human, constant connection between the LEO satellites and the ground station must be established.
Furthermore, an overcrowding of these satellites in the LEO region may prove to be disruptive for astronomers. As these blink and emit light, they could easily be mistaken for stars — possibly interfering with observatories’ works. Unless this issue is resolved, it is doubtful that this will go unopposed.
Beneath the Surface
There is also the case of undersea cables which is not necessarily new technology, but since its inception, only bigger companies and organizations have taken advantage of its use.
These cables are constructed to withstand greater pressures underwater. Apart from their durable exterior, the interior is composed of optical fibers with a dense wavelength division multiplexing, combining multiple signals into one fiber-optic cable that transfers data at a speed ranging from 80 gigabytes up to a terabyte per second (tbps). For context, one terabyte is equal to 8,000,000 megabits.
Additionally, these cables have a lifespan of a decade, and despite being submarine-grade, these cables are quite vulnerable. Especially for those near the shores or docks, human activities such as fishing may cause them to wear down or be cut off, thereby breaking network connections.
The cables are carefully laid out by modified ships that carry the undersea cables on board and lay out the cables on the seabed. These modified ships can carry up to 2,000 km worth of cable. It starts at the landing station, where a long cable is connected to the landing point at sea, and is then extended a few more kilometers (km) out into the sea. This end is connected to the cable aboard the ship, which starts the laying out of the cable. The cable being laid out is received by a plow that lays the cable on a trench on the seabed. Depending on sea conditions and the seabed, operations can cover 100 to 200 km per day, and the process of coiling hundreds of miles of cable may take years before completion.
In the Philippines, the race to build undersea fiber-optic technology has already begun, and the private telecommunications sector is leading the way. Today, providers like Eastern Communications, PLDT, Globe, Converge, and Sky have ramped up their efforts in making the once far-fetched concept available to consumers.
For instance, as early as 2013, undersea fiber cables have been present through PLDT’s partnership with other consortiums for the Asia Submarine Cable Express whose landing site is in Date, Camarines Norte. Other international cable systems in the Philippines include the Asia Pacific Cable Network 2 and the Asia-Middle East-West Europe 3, both of which have landing sites in Nasugbu, Batangas. Another is the Asia-America Gateway in Bauang, La Union.
Apart from these established cable connections, efforts have also been completed for the activation of the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), a 12.9-km undersea internet cable funded by Google, Facebook, TE SubCom, and Pacific Light Data Communications with a capacity of transferring data at a rate of 120 tbps. The landing stations of the PLCN are said to be in Baler and San Fernando, Pampangga, and are connected to Deep Water, China, to El Segundo in California, United States, and to Toucheng, Taiwan.
Jupiter, a 14-km cable connection with Maruyama, Japan and Los Angeles, United States, is another project in development and is expected to be completed this year, with the Philippines’ landing station for the project in Daet, Camarines Norte. It is set to be completed by the end of 2020; however, delays are foreseeable due to the quarantine restrictions amid the pandemic.
To conceptualize how fast speeds would be when powered by a network of even more undersea fiber cables, the latency would be significantly reduced and the country could be powered by much faster data transmission and internet speeds at rates of 60 to 120 Tbps due to the clustering of fiber cables that upgrade the systems’ capacity. This would mean faster browsing speeds and added support for heavy bandwidth internet services.
Constraints and Possibilities
However, as with anything, the technology has its set of cons too. For one, broken undersea cables result in slower internet speeds, and these cables might be expensive to maintain. Such was the case in 2017 when the entire Southeast Asian region, including the Philippines, which subscribed to undersea fiber optics, suffered latencies due to the Asia-American Gateway (AAG), Intra Asia (TGN-IA), and SEA-MEWE3 networks encountering problems. Recently, in the last week of September 2020, the AAG broke down and forced emergency maintenance activities for providers like PLDT and Converge. This then resulted in degraded connectivity during peak hours, and has even led to schools canceling classes for the days that followed.
In terms of their reach, both undersea optical fibers and satellites have the ability to connect even far-flung areas to the internet, where connectivity continues to be a major issue. But openness to investment is one thing while having the actual funding is another. In 2015, the cost of laying undersea cables was already at USD 1,000,000, while pricing for launching satellites went as high as USD 1,000,000,000. For Project Jupiter, PLDT invested as much as PHP 7,000,000,000. With the fluctuating unpredictability of the global economy, one can only estimate how much more these can cost in the future.
With the quarantine, the people’s increasing dependence on the internet is here to stay. To cater to this need, the internet infrastructures available in the country must be improved and further increased, so as to be able to accommodate the needs of the masses.
As this influences the creation of jobs and economic gains post-crisis, there is even much greater urgency and pressure on the government to work together with ISPs in addressing this ongoing problem of the country.
This article was written by our Science and Tech contributor, Dab Castañeda.