Can Internet meet nation’s schools’ needs?

Published September 14, 2020, 10:27 AM

by Manila Bulletin

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. called last Thursday for the construction of some 50,000 cell towers nationwide to ensure a strong Internet connection in any part of the country with the shift to online classes this coming school year as part of the government efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.

He recommended that cell towers be constructed in all schools, all municipalities, and all barangays in order to have wide interconnection between the Department of Education (DepEd) and all towns and barangays. There are now only 19,000 cell towers in the country, he said, and many local government units are making it difficult for telecom companies to construct due to numerous requirements.

Esperon’s proposal exposes the fact that the country does not now have the Internet coverage needed if the nation’s schools are to open this school year using a combination of online sessions with face-to-face classes.

The school year in the Philippines traditionally opens in June, but because of the pandemic, it was moved to August 24, then again to October 5, after Congress approved a law authorizing the President to move the opening date of the school year during a state of emergency.

Secretary of Education Leonor Briones has opposed postponement of the opening of classes, saying it may affect the students’ interest in learning. But because of the pandemic, she has yielded to the recent postponement to October 5. The DepEd drew up a blended learning system with Internet-based sessions, television and radio programs, and printed modules.

But now Experon’s call for the construction of 50,000 cell towers to provide the country with a strong Internet connection exposes a big weakness in the DepEd plan – there is no Internet service in many parts of the country. There are now only 19,000 cell towers, Esperon said, when the country needs at least 50,000.

And even if such a widespread Internet service were to miraculously materialize between now and the opening of classes, millions of homes in the country do not have the laptops and tablets needed to connect to the Internet. Manila has appropriated ₱1 billion for 11,000 laptops for its teachers and 136,950 tablets for its students. How many local governments can do this for their teachers and students?

The problem of cell towers which Esperon spoke about is an old one for the nation’s telecom services who were unable to expand their services because local governments, as well as many gated subdivisions, were reluctant to grant permission for the construction of cell towers for fear of radiation. This explains why the Philippines today has only some 19,000 towers compared to Vietnam’s 70,000.

If, by some miracle, Esperon’s wish comes true and local governments agree to the building of more cell towers, it will take considerable funding and considerable time to build 50,000 of them. They will not be there when the school year opens on October 5 – only 21 days from today.

Under the circumstances, we will try to hold classes but they may not reach most of the nation’s school children. Or we can further postpone the opening of classes – perhaps to January next year – when, it is hoped, the pandemic will have sufficiently died down to allow the holding of face-to-face classes.