THE LONG VIEW
Out of touch
THE JOKE FROM THE PINK PANTHER SHOULD be familiar. Inspector Clouseau sits beside a man and a dog. Clouseau smiles at the man and the dog. “Does your dog bite?” Clouseau asks the man. The man says, “No.” Clouseau pets the dog, which promptly bites him. Clouseau protests: “I thought you said your dog does not bite!” The man looks at Clouseau and the dog and says, “That is not my dog.”
Nature bit Southeast Asia when an earthquake in Taiwan cut several submarine cables, leading to a regional slowdown in Internet speeds, which we feel up to the present. Our government has hardly taken notice of the fact, as the man who witnessed Clouseau being bitten by a dog. Not even with a dry “but it’s not our fault.” Media and the telecom companies have reacted similarly – that is, they have hardly reacted at all.
In Singapore, angry letters were sent to the controlled press, expressing dissatisfaction with the government’s emergency response – shifting traffic from undersea cables to satellites. In Hong Kong, the Telecom Authority assumed emergency powers; in Indonesia, it was decreed that aid workers would have priority with regard to Internet usage. Last Saturday, Telekom Malaysia (TM) issued a thorough update on the causes for the Internet slowdown, its extent and how long it would last.
It then went on to look toward the future: “This episode has clearly pointed out how dependent the Asian countries are on these links and it has certainly persuaded many providers, TM included, to rethink our respective business continuity strategies for the future in view of the Pacific basin’s susceptibility to natural disasters.” Online, I’ve seen people point out US investment to prevent such a catastrophic scenario. India, too, has invested in many alternate routes so as to avoid being unduly dependent on a few cables.
At home, PLDT sent an informative e-mail to its Internet subscribers soon after the earthquake. It hasn’t sent any updates since – and certainly with nowhere near the detail in TM’s. A PLDT official did make soothing reassurances: the company is “doing their best.” A customer appreciates reassurances, but expects more than assurances based on faith. In the information age, the lack of information, even about things beyond a company’s control, only leads to suspicions that the company isn’t quite up to speed.
For example, it took an entry in a Singaporean blog to show that there’s a ray of sunshine on the horizon: a new submarine cable is in the works, and the Philippines is part of the consortium. The blogger, James Seng, says “the new 20,000 km Asia-America Gateway (AAG) is likely to follow the North Asia route … since the members include AiTi (Brunei), CAT Telekom (Thailand), PLDT (Philippines), REACH (Hong Kong), StarHub (Singapore) and VNPT (Vietnam) led by Telecom Malaysia (Malaysia).” This is good, because it provides another cable; it’s bad, Seng says, because it follows the path that has proven so troublesome – going through the regional earthquake belt.
An anonymous commenter proposed an alternate route: “A reasonable alternative route to the usual North Asia path would be SG or Malaysia or eastern Thailand, and then to either Philippines or Viet Nam, then to Guam and then to Hawaii, then over to North America. The fibre routes that transit Guam from east, west and south were not harmed by this incident. Although Guam looks small … lots of potential for traffic add/drop there because it is the western-most US territory in the mid-Pacific.  Manila and Viet Nam also have a fair bit of add/drop potential, particularly southern parts of Viet Nam where the newest ‘tiger’ economy is booming.”
Now these are solutions in ordinary people’s blogs; but no forward-thinking seems to be emanating from Filipinos. For the tens of thousands of Filipinos gainfully employed – most of them young people who have been affected by the Taiwan earthquake – the only person who had anything to say was a foreigner: Peter Wallace, who in his Friday column focused on the call center industry: 150,000 employees over 120 call centers, he said, were affected, totally cut off from their clients on the day of the earthquake, with capacity still down by 40 percent three days after the quake.
Wallace pointed out how neighboring governments and telecom companies moved heaven and earth to restore the flow of data, or at least prioritize traffic so that businesses were less handicapped than they otherwise might have been. Some governments found their investments in existing submarine cables or telecom companies paying off, in terms of clout: they could shove aside countries (like the Philippines) which have no investments or other means to demand priority access to the pipelines.
This means, he said, that future expansion might be affected since the country wasn’t able to respond swiftly – in fact, it seemed to him it didn’t even respond at all. And he was just talking about the call center industry. There are others: medical transcriptionists, online tutors in English, Math and other subjects; editors, copy writers, animators, web designers, and so on.
We’re poised to finally play host to the Asean Summit in Cebu, which finally will allow the Queen City of the South to put its best foot forward. However an opportunity to do something tangible is going to be missed, because the only things government will be concentrating on are beautification and crowd management. The Philippines has a timely opportunity to make a call to action for a concerted effort to do something about the regional slowdown in Internet traffic, but our country won’t. It only shows how divorced our political situation is from reality, and how out of touch our leadership is from the modern world.