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Grace Mirandilla-Santos

APEC Summit and infrastructure meltdown in Manila

This week, Manila is hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit that is expected to be attended by 20 heads of states, including US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It’s not very often that the Philippine capital, which has one of the highest population densities in the world, becomes the setting of an important global gathering. And when this does happen, often we see the gaping holes in Manila’s infrastructure, including roads, airports and telecommunications.

As a security measure, several road closures have been ordered around Metro Manila on November 16-20. These include long stretches in main thoroughfares like Roxas Boulevard, Quirino Avenue and EDSA. To those not familiar, EDSA is the main artery that connects the northern and southern part of the mega city.

Of course Filipinos want nothing more than to be proud of their country and hope for a successful event. However, work in the private sector is not suspended, save for November 18 and 19 during the APEC Summit itself. Several days leading up to the summit, commuters and motorists were paralyzed by long hours of traffic due to dry-runs of special APEC lanes, which occupied two lanes on the 6-lane EDSA. On November 16, many had to endure walking for hours just to get to their work place. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) each issued advisories to discourage people from venturing out, so as not to add to the traffic congestion. How the government expects anyone to comply, sans official work suspension, is beyond comprehension.

About 1,400 local and international flights have been canceled in Manila’s busy and crowded Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Business trips, holidays, and travel for work had to be rescheduled, put on hold or canceled. This is as expected because the four airport terminals cannot even accommodate traffic on regular days.

The Philippine government was said to have spent 10 billion pesos ($212 million) for the hosting of this event. What can this much money buy? The best accommodations, excellent security, the most sumptuous food, and the fastest WiFi ever!

At the APEC ministerial meeting, some Filipino participants reported that the venue offered free WiFi at a blazing download speed of 50Mbps—unheard of even by the premium data plan holders in the country. An even more remarkable feat is upload speeds reaching over 70Mbps. Also, no password!

More concerning, however, is the widespread speculation of a possible cellular network and internet service shutdown in places near the APEC events, similar to what happened during the Papal visit in January 2015.

NTC met with telcos on Monday to discuss issues like service disruption at the APEC meeting sites. The regulator was quick to announce that there was no planned disruption for the duration of the event, but that it was waiting for orders from the Office of the President. Telcos were also ordered to ensure strong cellular and internet signals in APEC venues (hence, the lightning-speed free Internet).

PLDT and Globe have been quick to deny these “rumors.” PLDT released a press statement assuring its subscribers that there was no such directive yet. Globe said that only the NTC can make the official announcements on this matter, but added that service in some areas may be affected by public safety measurements during the summit.

This still leaves a lot of room for any possibilities. On Facebook and Twitter, there is general fear that the cellular signal blockage would be carried out anyway and announced after the fact, as was what happened during the Pope’s stay in Manila. The telcos back then merely complied with the government’s order, as the disruption was only for several hours. But the APEC meetings and summit lasting for a whole week might be a different matter.

While these measures can be justified for security reasons, Atty. Marnie Tonson of the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA) thinks that they are related to “the prevailing political climate after the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Bahgdad, and Kenya,” which “calls for the use of utmost caution. That means, national security would trump civil liberties in most venues.”

Atty. Tonson further explained, “The general rule is that any massive use of technology is prohibited except in times of war. Nukes, warships, biological weapons—these are controlled, or should be controlled, by a nation's department of defense precisely because they are the hammers of war. The problem with the cyber age is that communications tech has also become a hammer of war.”

A note to APEC delegates: this brand of hospitality does not, by any measure, reflect what the ordinary Filipino experience every day. Traffic navigation app Waze has branded Manila as having the worst road traffic compared to other cities that use it. NAIA airports experience congestion everyday, and most recently was plagued with the “tanim-bala” (bullet-planting) scam that allegedly preys on tourists and overseas migrant workers. And lastly, Philippine Internet has been consistently ranked as one of the slowest average connection speeds in Asia Pacific, according to Akamai, Ookla and LIRNEasia.

The APEC summit is undoubtedly an important global event that the Philippines should be proud to host. However, after this is all over, Filipinos can only hope that all the cosmetic improvements and last-minute housecleaning would translate to long-term solutions to problems in the capital city that are causing everyday burdens to the ordinary citizen. This APEC Summit just made Manila’s meltdown painfully and embarrassingly obvious.