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Being online in the Philippines

20 Jan 2022 / /

Now that I’ve lived in the Philippines for over three years, I’ve gained a few insights into the ins and outs of getting and staying online.

As an IT consultant, being connected with both computer and phone is kind of essential, as is a reasonable connection speed without download/upload restrictions.

I am (mostly) successful at having a constant connection, but sometimes it’s a real struggle.

When my wife and I first moved here and were living in a hotel, the first step towards being independently online was to get mobile phones with proper postpaid contracts (buying prepaid data is really expensive).

But let’s backtrack a little first. There are two real telecoms companies in the Philippines – PLDT and Globe. Every other telecoms company, brand or provider is piggybacking or white-labelling PLDT and/or Globe. Effectively it’s a duopoly; a cartel of two (and they act like it). The new third provider, Dito, is nowhere near nationwide yet and won’t be for some time.

Data on the go

For mobile, there’s Globe, TM (part of Globe), Smart (part of PLDT), Sun (part of PLDT), etc. We opted for Globe because most of our local contacts used Globe and there are cross-network charges.

It turned out that in order to open a Globe postpaid account (i.e. a monthly subscription contract), you had to have a local credit (not debit) card. And in order to have a local credit card, you have to have a local bank account, though not all local banks offer a credit card straight away.

Now, in order for a foreigner to have a local bank account, that foreigner needs an ACRI (Alien Certificate of Registration) card, which I wouldn’t be able to get for several months because of the type of Visa I was on. You get the idea – A needs B which needs C which needs D and by the time you get to D you’ve forgotten what A is.

Luckily my wife is Filipina so she opened a savings account with a local bank, applied for a credit card, and three weeks (!) later it arrived and we got our mobile contracts set up. Approx $14/month for me (8Gb/month) and $22 for my wife (12Gb/month). Transfer rates are anything up to about 12Mbps, depending on the signal strength. Usually it’s no more than about 7Mpbs.

Three years later we’re still with Globe on the same contracts. That doesn’t mean we’re happy with the service we’ve received; it just means changing is a big hassle and keeping your number when changing provider has only just been made legal. Coverage is spotty in rural areas almost everywhere, and you will get at least one sales call every month asking if you want to upgrade your contract. We learned to block those numbers.

Data at home

As above, your choices are effectively PLDT (Fibre) or Globe (SIM-card-in-a-router), since every other broadband service company is using the PLDT or Globe backbone. However, choosing a smaller local “last mile” company can make sense, since some of them have wholesale contracts with both PLDT and Globe, and when one goes down they can switch their customers to the other.

A smaller local company will also almost certainly have more responsive customer service than PLDT or Globe, though that isn’t saying much. If your PLDT connection goes down, their standard response time for a fix is up to 6 (yes, six) working days.

When we moved to the Philippines, our first house was within reach of Globe and Sky (I think Sky uses the PLDT backbone); PLDT wasn’t an option. Globe would only offer 10Mbps and Sky could provide 15Mpbs, so we got Sky (co-ax cable from a street box into the house).

Later, when we moved house, the new house had a PLDT fibre connection so we took over the contract from the seller. You see, PLDT fibre connections are like gold dust; if the street box nearest your house already has all 8 lines allocated, you could wait years for them to install another box nearby, because they won’t install one unless at least 4 households in that location ask for a connection. And with PLDT offering 25Mbps for the same price as Sky’s 15Mbps, it would have been crazy to give it up. Now, the line has been upgraded and I routinely get over 30Mpbs within the Philippines, though connecting to Europe is still slower, not usually faster than 15Mbps – evidence that PLDT are seriously overselling their infrastructure.

AMUSING NOTE: PLDT provide a router with both wifi and LAN ports – but devices on wifi can’t see devices on the LAN ports and vice-versa. You have to search online for the super-admin password and do some esoteric telnetting into the router to fix it – and whenever there’s a power outage or you reboot the router, you have to apply the fix again. I’m not sure exactly why they have this restriction; I can only assume that it’s because they’re FUCKING ASSHOLES.

Because PLDT is so awful, we tried to get on board with a local provider called Fil Products (they use PLDT backbone but install their own last-mile fibre and don’t cripple their routers), but it turns out that they have the same street box problem – all the lines near our house are taken, and they won’t install another street box until – well, I’m not sure until what. They wouldn’t say.

There’s another local option where you install a microwave antenna on a 10 metre pole and it connects line-of-sight to the company’s tower (where it joins the PLDT backbone) – but their monthly charge is 5 times everybody else’s.

And of course I could buy a SIM card modem like this one and put a 4G data-only SIM into it. Globe do a data-only SIM on a 6 month contract, instead of the 2 year contracts required for a normal voice+data SIM. Where we live right now, though, I’d have to install a bloody big parabolic antenna on a long pole to get decent speeds.

So right now we’re still with PLDT and not at all happy about it.

Situation normal, all fucked up

Now I’ve explained what’s available, let’s add natural disasters into the mix.

In December 2021 a typhoon hit central Philippines. In our area, Globe’s mobile signal for voice and SMS disappeared for several days, and mobile data was unavailable for two weeks. PLDF fibre connections mainly kept going with some shorter outages, but speed was seriously down. And the power was out for over a week anyway, so we would have had to power the router with a generator.

A few days of disruption are to be expected, but things are still bad six weeks later. Somewhere nearby, one or more Globe towers must still be without power, because the mobile signal at home is now only usable in the front garden. And there are still big issues with the PLDT backbone somewhere, because the fibre connection slows to a crawl every evening – way more than usual. There’s no point in calling their customer service, because they wouldn’t have a clue. They understand technical issues about as well as the average hedgehog.

And I haven’t talked about the weekly (sometimes more often) power outages caused by the incompetence and apathy of the local electricity company, which usually rob us of at least 8 hours power a week. These led me to buy a battery-powered inverter, so at least I can run the PLDT router to save burning mobile data during the outages. I also invested in 2 weighty USB powerbanks and a Mac M1 with its amazing battery life.

Still want to be a digital nomad in the Philippines?

To be fair, most of the time I’m connected and online. But the two worst aspects are the lack of real choice of provider, and the appalling standard of customer service at both PLDT and Globe.

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