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Bridging the Digital Divide through Wireless Connection


The Batanes team, from top to bottom: Dr. Ocampo, R. Lorenzo, M.
Aclan, and Dr. Ramos Jr.

(College of Engineering)--In Batanes, Internet came first before the telephone, a leapfrog no less, as four young professors from the Electrical and Electronics Engineering (EEE) Department of the UP College of Engineering flew to the northernmost province in June 2007 and installed wireless connection. 

Manuel Ramos Jr., Ph.D, the project’s team leader and chair of the EEE department, was joined by professors Roel Ocampo, Ph.D., Meinard Aclan, and Romarie Lorenzo.  He said they walked into four fields to set up wireless links which are important relay points to get all the schools connected.  Prior to the installation, the team conducted site visits in December and in May.

Currently, seven schools are connected to the Internet and students are able to research on various topics they would discuss in school at the click of the mouse. 

Ramos said EEE was responsible for specifying and configuring all wireless equipment used for the Batanes deployment. They also designed and built solar-related equipment.  However, funds used in the for the project were from the Department of Education (DepEd).  

The Batanes project was a cooperation among three major organizations: the UP EEE, which provided the technical know how and for the most part actual field deployment; Gearing Up Internet Literacy for Schools (GILAS), a consortium of private corporations and public and quasi-public organizations, whose goal is to connect all the country’s public high schools to the Internet; and Batanes residents who provided manpower and constructed the towers where the wireless equipment were mounted.

Ramos believes that UP, being the premier institution for higher learning in the Philippines, should take on a lead role in rural connectivity, and the Batanes experience is just one small part in its objective of bridging the digital divide.

 

How it all started

Prof. Joel Marciano, Ph.D., who is also from EEE and the program leader, related that the idea of rural connectivity was initially pushed by Mr. Diosdado Banatao, one of the most successful Filipino engineers in Silicon Valley, who sponsors the Banatao Fellows to Berkeley.   

He remembered Banatao telling him, “You should try to look at the rural connectivity problem and see what you can do about it.”  That was in 2004.

In 2006,  Ramos did his post doctoral studies in Berkeley.  Again, Banatao brought up the subject on rural connectivity. Since it was Ramos’ field of study, together with Marciano and Prof. Josephine Dionisio of the Department of Sociology- Third World Center, they submitted a UP Open Grant proposal entitled, “Digital Provide:  Bridging Rural Communities through Emerging, Disruptive and Sustaining Information Technologies and Social Infrastructure,” to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Development (OVCRD).  The proposal was approved for implementation.  It has three components: two are technical in nature, headed by Marciano and Ramos, respectively; and a social study component handled by Dionisio.  Marciano was the overall program leader .

At the same time,  Ramos and Marciano approached GILAS, which was a logical move, since they shared similar objectives.  Through the invitation of Dr. Paco Sandejas of Narra Venture Capital, Marciano became part of the Technical sub-committee of GILAS and this was one of the first steps in formalizing the linkage between UP EEE and GILAS.

Bridging the Digital Divide


Dr. Marciano checks the installation on the rooftop of
Panaligan National High School in Oriental Mindoro.

Under the OVCRD grant, the group started work in November 2006.  Tuguegarao in Cagayan and Oriental Mindoro are already benefitting from UPD's Digital Provide project. Ramos led the deployment in Tuguegarao while Marciano headed the deployment team for Oriental Mindoro, which is composed of Jerome Ortega (undegraduate student, BSECE), Eleanore Constantino (undergraduate student, BSECE) and Ocampo.

The rest of the deployment in Batangas, Batanes, and the northern part of Zambales were funded by GILAS and/or the local governments, while UP EEE provided the essential technical know-how, through Ramos.
 
According to Marciano, Internet subscribers only account for five to six percent of the population.  In October 2006, GILAS celebrated the connection to the Internet of its 1,000th school.  But most of these schools have wired connection, near areas with telephone companies (telcos).  In the absence of telcos in far-flung areas, where GILAS has no technical know how to provide internet service, EEE comes in. 

He emphasized that rural connectivity is a problem that can be solved using current technology.  “The idea is we don’t need to invent a new system.  It is readily available, and the mass production of this equipment keeps driving the cost down in such a way that they are made affordable.  What we only need to do is take this equipment off the shelf and integrate them into a package solution and then deploy it.”

“It’s an interim measure.  One idea is, we will set up the infrastructure and the people will get to use it. Eventually, the telcos will come in if we show them that this technology is cost-effective and profitable in the long run…it’s more of a long-termstrategic relationship also with the telco,” he added.

Future Prospects

Access to information and services through the Internet empowers communities and spurs them toward enhanced productivity and this is one reason why there is urgency to provide Internet service to a majority of the Filipinos. 

Due to its limited funding, Marciano said his UP EEE group will not be able to wire the whole Philippines.  But at least, the technology has been demonstrated.  It is cost-effective and it can be done.  He hopes that what they did in Batangas, Cagayan, Oriental Mindoro, Zambales and Batanes be replicated in other parts of the country. “You want the technology you’re studying, all these things you have studied to somehow become useful and benefit the Filipinos,” he said.

—By: Ma. Cristina F. Filio