The Explainer: NBN’s nuts and bolts

That was Rosalind Russel, playing a millionaires suddenly out of money and in need of job, trying to be a switchboard operator. We’ve come a long way since the 1920s, the period shown in this film, “Auntie Mame.” Everything’s electronic now, and everything’s fast. Everything travels on broadband networks, at least for the private sector.

But our government has only partially entered the world wide web, and in some ways, it’s still stuck in the telegram and snail mail era. Our government’s efforts to try to plug itself into the broadband era, however, has caused the equivalent of a computer crash. Except what crashed was the credibility of our government and a potentially big deal with China.

Tonight’s not about the A to Z of ZTE, but rather, the 1, 2, 3’s of the NBN.


I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Snail mail to e-mail


If government policy were a song, everything you wanted to know about the National Broadband Network’s in the song “You Can Reach Me.” Listen:


You can reach me by sail boat

Find a tree swing rope to rope

Take a sled and sly down slope

Into these arms of mine


You can jump on a speed boat

Across the border in a blazer role

I don’t care how you get here

Just get here if you can


There are hills and mountains between us

Always something to get over

If I had my way surely you’d be closer

I need you closer


There are hills and mountains between us

Always something to get over

If I had my way surely you’d be closer

I need you closer


Like lovers pining for the Tarzan of their life, government officials are obsessed with staying in touch, and doing it as quickly as possible. We like to think that our founding fathers wrote with feather quills and that the only modern means of communication they had, was the printing press. Not so.

Telegrams flew thick and fast during the Filipino-American War. When he attacked Manila, one of the first things Commodore George Dewey did, was cut the telegraph cable connecting Manila to Hong Kong.

You will even find letters of Apolinario Mabini, to President Aguinaldo, talking about… get this, phone calls, and of course, official telegrams sent left and right by officials of our First Republic.

A century before email, there was the telegram, and if you read John Keegan’s “Intelligence in War,” you’ll find that first there were runners, then semaphore signalers, then telegrams, whose usefulness in war was perfected by the Union forces in the American Civil War. From telegrams, the next development was radio, then satellites and of course, today, the internet.

Victor Davis Hanson, in “Carnage and Culture” discusses landmark battles that established the dominance of Western civilization’s power. And among the means was better technology, which, together with Keegan’s book, means better technology for intelligence.

If we reverse the famous saying that war is the pursuit of politics by other means, then politics can be said to be the pursuit of power by means of the acquisition of the technology to acquire and control information. Any kind of governance, requires what is called “real-time” intelligence.

The same reason your date is texting her friends what you’re doing, even while your date is going on, is the same reason a President would want to instantly communicate with an official. Anywhere. Anytime.

And in a secure manner, too: think of what happened when someone tried using her commercial cellphone to uh, shall we say, as she put it, protect her votes.

Do you remember that for a time, our internet connections all slowed down? That was because of an earthquake in January of this year in the vicinity of Taiwan. The undersea earthquake cut the cables that carry internet traffic around the world.


The website carried instructive maps at the time. Here they are.

This map shows you the global system of cables that carries internet traffic. When the earthquake took place off Taiwan, a major hub got cut off; 6 out of 7 of South Korea’s undersea cables, to give just one example, got cut. It took months for ships to be sent out, to lay new cables.

Rerouting traffic also ended up jamming the cables that were unaffected, and other telecoms means, including satellites, weren’t capable of meeting increased demands.

This picture, from the same site, explains why internet traffic here at home, slowed down to a crawl. Look at how all our internet systems connect to the outside world from a single point, somewhere in the vicinity of Batangas. And how, if you look at Taiwain, cables being cut would then cut us off, in turn, from the rest of the world.

At this point, with this brief overview of how we connect, internet wise, to the rest of the world, let’s focus on how we connect to each other, within our national territory.

Tonight, we have a special guest, who happens to be the most-widely read technology blogger in the country.

When the Senate began its hearings on the NBN-ZTE broadband deal, Abe Olandres got upset. He blogged about it:


And pointed out why, political considerations aside, he felt that Senators were being quite ignorant about the NBN proposal.

So when we return, Abe’s going to join me and by means of our famous Explainer low-tech demonstrations, we’ll try to clarify some hi-tech concepts for all of you. And that includes senators who had to ask what broadband even is.


II. That backbone business


OK so John Travolta and Hugh Jackman are as far as you can get from Benjamin Abalos and Joey de Venecia. But that scene from “Swordfish” with a hacker tempted by big bucks to enable a cybercrime, leads us to the NBN deal.

Here’s a book called “Faster,” by James Gleick. Well, why we keep demanding more speed in everything. It’s the reason, the author says, you punch the elevator several times in the magical expectation it will move things faster; and why the touch-tone phone was invented for people who found old fashioned rotary dialing a waste of precious time.

Remember that ad, with the kid frustrated that his trying to say I love you on video chat ended up I LLLLWOOOOOUVEE YUUUU and how happy he could finally go “Uuuuuy!” on cam? He was tired of dial up. Then he got broadband.

Well, this is the same desire, it seems, behind the proposed National Broadband Network.

Abe, let’s just start with the basics. You and I can connect to the internet by means of modems, and there are different kinds. There’s the dial up kind, there’s the faster DSL kind, and the cable kind. There’s even WiFi, which is wireless.

And whichever way we choose to connect, we end up connecting to a service provider. And each service provider has a franchise area, or territory.

Now what we have here is a map of the Philippines, and Abe, I’d like to ask you to start us on explaining what exists, right now, as the information highway within our country.


My view


Knowledge is power. And in today’s information age, many more people possess the knowledge to question the traditionally powerful. You can text me instantly, to challenge anything I say on this show, and every day, people challenge, add to, clarify, and debate what I say and write on my blog.

Our democratic institutions are having a hard time adjusting to this reality. Senators love being on TV but forget that TV is a cruel medium, particularly so to those who are ignorant of the facts, when so many fellow citizens possess the facts.

Tonight, we looked at basic concepts I shouldn’t have had to try to explain to you, because our senators could easily have done it for themselves. But tonight, I hope we’ve pointed the way to establishing the basics, without which any debate or even investigation, is pointless.

What the technologically-savvy can never do, however, is determine where laws have been broken and ethics ignored, in pursuit of what may be, otherwise, a technologically-neutral scheme. With nuclear fission you can wipe out continents, for example, or create electricity. Policy, and implementation is where technology ends, and old-fashioned notions of propriety, good governance, and ethics, must take over.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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