Addressing the Digital Divide in Rural Areas of the Philippines

Manuel Ramos, Jr.

The phrase “bridging the digital divide” usually appears in articles and press releases in reference to the need to address the disparity between people and communities with or without access to digital information. There is a wealth of information available in digital form, and gaining access to it is more important now than ever. The problem of bridging the digital divide is especially relevant to rural communities here in the Philippines, where access to the Internet is either not available or very costly. Information access is critical to economic and social activities that comprise the development process of communities. Simply put, information access is needed for development.

In the Philippines, government agencies and NGOs are all too familiar with the need for information access.  They have different programs to bridge the digital divide. Although there is still much to be done in local urban areas when it comes to information access, rural areas present a greater challenge. In urban areas, communication infrastructure is at least accessible.  Providing information access in this case basically involves activities such as deploying kiosks or personal computers to schools and other centers.  However, in rural areas, the communication infrastructure may be absent or very expensive for large volume access.  Connection solutions in the form of mobiles (such as GPRS and 3G) and satellites would definitely be too expensive for a small rural school or a small fishing town to afford, let alone sustain.

Connecting rural schools
Getting rural schools connected to the Internet may have a large impact on not only the students of the schools but also the teachers. One report on Philippine public education by Kaakbay CDI (Citizens Development Initiative), a non-government cause-oriented organization, mentions that rural areas and the countryside are the worst hit by the deteriorating quality of public education in the Philippines. Education is a powerful instrument in poverty alleviation and economic advancement; access to additional information through the Internet can improve the competencies of the teachers, and in turn, impact the students.

There are already different groups in the country trying to address the information access problem in rural areas. One such group is called Gearing Up Internet Literacy and Access for Students (GILAS), an Ayala Foundation group which aims to provide computers along with Internet connectivity to all public high schools in the Philippines. GILAS typically supplies a school with a package of about ten or twenty sets of computers. It also arranges for Internet con-nectivity with local ISPs for one year. Depending on the location of the school, Internet connectivity may be provided through the basic dial-up connection, DSL, or wireless broadband. With Globe Telecom, PLDT, or Digitel providing DSL, and Smart Telecom providing wireless broadband, GILAS can keep most of the public high schools in the country connected.

Another organization trying to address the matter of Internet connectivity is HotCity Wireless. According to their website (www.hotcitywireless.org), HotCity Wireless is a non-profit organization that promotes the use of low-cost wireless technology as a tool for the economic, social, and educational advancement of underprivileged citizens in the Philippines.  Its mission is to establish a low-cost wireless infrastructure to be utilized for global collaborative learning, knowledge sharing, and community participation.

From digital divide to Digital Provide
The academe is also doing its share to address the digital divide in the country. UP Diliman professors Joel Marciano, Josephine Dionisio, and Manuel Ramos have embarked on a project called “The Digital Provide: Bridging Rural Communities Through Emerging, Disruptive and Sustaining Information Technologies and Social Infrastructure.” Its goal is two-fold: it seeks to address the technology aspect of interconnecting schools; and it also intends to deal with the social dimension that comes with giving schools access to the Internet. The technology part of the project centers on using novel wireless connection technology to provide last-mile connectivity to the selected rural schools. The social part, on the other hand, involves conducting a baseline study and a post-implementation impact study on the selected schools. Some of the schools included in the project are public high schools in Oriental Mindoro, as well as an elementary school in Tuguegarao.

Even before the Digital Provide project was approved by the University, there were various efforts by a group from the UP Electrical and Electronics Engineering (UP EEE) Department to introduce and deploy wireless connectivity solutions in the service of education in the rural areas.

TACTIC (Technology affecting communities, technology improving communities) is a group from the UP EEE Department which addresses socially relevant issues in rural communities with the use of technology. The group’s current focus is using wireless connectivity as a last-mile option for connecting rural schools to the Internet. On a bigger scale, it studies different aspects of technology use for rural communities.

The group started out as an ad hoc team primarily concerned with setting up and testing wireless router equipment to be deployed later in Batanes. It is composed primarily of UPEEE-YICAL (Yamatake Industrial Control and Automation Lab) students. Its main goal back in mid-2007 was to get all of the wireless router equipment assembled, configured, and fully tested before the Batanes deployment. The testing consisted of mock setups within and outside the University to check if wireless connections could be established between the configured units at distances similar to those to be encountered in Batanes.

Prior to this some members of the group helped GILAS in establishing Internet connectivity in Malakimpook High School in San Pascual, Batangas. Because the school is located in a remote area where even landlines are not available, they turned to wireless connectivity, the most cost-effective option. As the source of the Internet connection, they used Alalum High School, located two kilometers away from Malakimpook, where landlines which support DSL were available. By installing 802.11b-based wireless router equipment customized by the UP EEE group for the site, the full bandwidth of the DSL connection at Alalum High School is now available for use in Malakimpook.

Wireless routers
The reliability of technology plays a crucial role in ensuring the success of the deployment.  The wireless routers need to be configured optimally so that the wireless link is available whenever the faculty and students need to use the Internet. The group achieved this by configuring wireless routers to operate not at their highest speed capability, but only above the bandwidth that can be supplied by the DSL provider. This has been proven as offering the best reliability while providing as much bandwidth as possible to the school. The routers were also configured to monitor, among other things, traffic passing through the link and the status of the routers, and to report this information to TACTIC group. The status report helps the group to monitor the performance of the routers remotely and do additional changes in configuration if necessary without traveling to the actual site.  The report logs may also be used in evaluating the impact of the technology.

Another site connected to the Internet with the help of the TACTIC  group and UP EEE faculty is Guisguis National High School in Zambales. Like Malakimpook, the school needed a wireless link to the source of its Internet connection some eight kilometers away, Lipay National High School. Although eight kilometers is still very much within the range of the wireless equipment installed, due to the contour and vegetation of the region between the two schools, antenna masts about ten meters high had to be built. Constructing antenna masts higher than five meters, of course, meant additional expenses. The masts needed to be inexpensive but at the same time able to support the wireless equipment and the persons who would climb up to install them.

The Batanes challenge
The projects in Batangas and Zambales not only underscored fruitful outcomes resulting from collaborations of academe and other institutions, but also provided various practical lessons for TACTIC in setting up connectivity solutions in rural areas. This allowed the group to pursue more difficult deployments, the most challenging of which, to date, is the deployment in Batanes. With initiatives from the local government of Batanes and DepEd, as well as the coordination of GILAS and technical help from UPEEE, plans for interconnecting a total of six schools scattered across the three Batanes islands were started in mid-2006, using the only available(Internet source located at Basco National Science High School in Basco, Batanes.

The deployment posed several new challenges such as longer link distances, multihop configurations, solar-powered relays, and very tall antennae masts.  A twenty-meter mast needed to be constructed in order to provide links to the islands of Sabtang and Itbayat. The locals, armed with their experience with harsh Batanes storms, did their part in constructing a stable and tall mast in Vayang, about 1.5 kilometers northeast of Basco.  Due to the remote location of Vayang, the wireless equipment needed to be solar-powered. Using lessons learned from a solar testbed for wireless routers in the University, the group designed and deployed a reliable solar power system to power some of the wireless routers.

In conjunction with an energy-aware wireless router configuration, the solar power system deployed can provide two days of power even with minimal sunlight. This is especially useful in a place like Batanes, where  good sunlight may not be available for several days during stormy periods. The wireless router in Vayang links Itbayat Agricultural National High School to the Internet. The link from Vayang to Itbayat is forty kilometers long, and is the farthest single link deployed by the group outside of the University testbed. The Vayang link also provides Internet connection to the Sabtang island, where Sabtang National School of Fisheries is located.

From Sabtang, the wireless connection is distributed to three other schools located in the southern part of the main island. Two of the schools are Ivana National High School and Batanes General Comprehensive High School, which are about six kilometers from Sabtang across the Sabtang channel. The third school linked from Sabtang is Itbud Integrated School. Connecting Itbud is challenging due to its location in a valley region and the surrounding mountainous areas. Two solar-powered remote wireless relay sites needed to be established to get the link from Sabtang to Itbud. This part of the deployment provided valuable data on the performance of the multihop configuration as well as solar power. The sixth school connected in Batanes is Mahatao National High School. It was necessary to install another solar-powered remote relay to get the Internet connection to Mahatao.

Testbeds in Antipolo and Tagaytay
As proven by the success of these deployments, careful planning goes a long way.  The deployments  would have been unsuccessful without extensive studies of the sites and the testing of a mock setup in the University. To aid in performing different tests on multihop links and long distance links, the group has a testbed consisting of a site in the University and areas in Antipolo and Tagaytay.  This allows single links of up to sixty kilometers and multihop links of up to four hops to be tested. Deployment to the actual site is attempted only after the wireless equipment is properly configured and thoroughly tested. Careful planning and testing minimize problems that may be encountered in the site deployment. They also help in simplifying the actual setup, allowing the members of the community who are employed to do the deployment themselves.

Currently, the TACTIC group is preparing for another major deployment(on Tablas Island in Romblon. This effort is in conjunction with the UP EEE Alumni “EEEnternet” project which similarly aims to connect rural schools to the Internet. The project will provide funding for the wireless equipment while using existing computing resources at the local schools. Two schools, Alcantara National High School and Looc National High School, are the first to be connected using wireless links, with the provision for links in other schools in the future.

Finally, another realization from these deployments is how community members from the school or from the area are more than willing to help with the effort, especially when education is concerned. It seems clear that improving the current state of education is regarded as a worthy cause by most people. Their support moves the cause even further along.

One feels with certainty, after seeing the excitement of the students and teachers in sending their first email and browsing the web from their school, that the hard work of trekking up mountains with wireless equipment, a 10-kg battery, and an 80 W solar panel on one’s back, has more than paid off.
____________________
The author is associate professor and chairman of the UP College of Engineering Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering.

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