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Haiyan-Battered Philippine Cities Struggle to Resurrect Networks

Many Filipinos embraced wireless in response to a history of poor landline service, leaving them with few communications options after the superstorm
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Courtesy of UNICEF/PFPG2013P-0165/Maitem

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The Philippines jumped into the wireless age with both feet, like many developing countries, after decades of unreliable or nonexistent landline service. When Typhoon Haiyan pummeled the archipelago late last week, the voice and data services that had served the Filipino people relatively well in recent years were wiped out in many areas. Mobile communications are only now beginning to be restored, most of it set up by incoming aid workers to coordinate agency efforts.

Displaced Filipinos, however, find themselves without immediate access to an operational radio communication network that could inform them about available aid and services, missing relatives and evacuation sites, according to a November 13 situational update by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Such is the legacy of a country without a reliable communication infrastructure to back up its mobile networks.

Communication networks have been restored with intermittent signals in some areas of Tacloban City, one of the worst hit during the storm. Yet, as of Wednesday, the lack of a dependable network has prevented Tacloban’s Department of Public Works and Highways regional office from reporting on the status of roads and bridges in the city and outlying areas, according to OCHA. This information is crucial for workers distributing relief and setting up radio and other alternative communication networks.

Telecom experts arrived in Tacloban on Tuesday and have been able to establish basic connectivity and voice services among the humanitarian community in that city as well as Cebu and Roxas, two other areas hard hit by the storm, which first made landfall early November 8 with maximum sustained winds of 235 kilometers per hour and gusts at 275 kph. This should help locals via the distribution of supplies and help, even if it won’t impact their devices directly.

Scientific American contacted Manila-based Steven Rood, Philippines and Pacific Island Country Representative for The Asia Foundation, to find out more about the infrastructure that relief and recovery workers try to contend with as they arrive in Tacloban and other cities that took the brunt of Haiyan.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What was the communications infrastructure like in the Philippines prior to the storm?
[Former Singapore Prime Minister] Lee Kwan Yew once insulted the Philippines in the early 1990s by saying, "Ninety-nine percent of Filipinos are waiting for a telephone and the other 1 percent for a dial tone." In that case, he was being unfair. At the time about 5 percent had a phone…and were waiting for a dial tone.

I arrived in the Philippines in 1981; applied for a phone in 1982. By 1994 the phone company was proudly displaying its computerized database that still had me on the waiting list.

Then in 1995 mobile came, and I got my first mobile phone. And I have determinedly hung on to it—or at least the number, through many changes of handsets—ever since.

Without a reliable landline system, how did people communicate over long distances?
Until the late 1990s many government offices outside of Manila had a radio room for communication with the capital. At the University of the Philippines in Baguio, we used to have regularly scheduled times for radio contact, and if there was no official business, then people could conduct personal business (by asking their interlocutor to go to the main campus at the appropriate hour). We did have landlines—five numbers for a campus of 100 faculty and 2,000 students. Until the late 1980s phone numbers in Baguio City—population 250,000—only had four digits, meaning a theoretical maximum of 9,999 lines for the entire city. Long distance was through operators, and unreliable—hence, the radios.

What impact did mobile phones have?
Of course, telecommunications liberalization, which created competition among providers, changed all of that. Mobile phones came in and monopolies broke up, so landlines became available as well as mobile. And—and this is the point—radio usage dropped away.

How did the country’s wireless infrastructure hold up in the storm?
So, in this calamity, when cell towers were knocked over and electricity cut off, all communication shut down. In reaction, Pres. [Benigno Aquino III] issued an instruction that local governments should get radio capability. In the Philippines local governments are not only the first responders, but in almost all situations—this one being an exception due to the fact that the personnel of local government units also suffered vast casualties—they also coordinate the relief-and-recovery efforts undertaken by the national government through their local disaster councils.
 

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