Thursday, June 30, 2005

VITAL TOOL OF COMMUNICATION FOR ORDINARY FILIPINOS

By K. Oanh Ha

MANILA, Philippines - Marsha Abenes, 20, pauses while talking to a visitor at the Glorietta Mall in downtown Manila to read an incoming text message on her cell phone. It's a sweet nothing from her boyfriend, who could have delivered the message quicker and cheaper by leaning over and whispering it into her ear.

But then, this is the Philippines, where text messaging isn't just a craze, it's a way of life. This country's 80 million people send 160 million cell phone messages a day.

Unlike in the United States, where text messaging is popular mostly with teens and young adults, sending and receiving messages via cell phone has become tightly integrated into the daily life of many Filipinos. It has become a vital tool for daily communication, commerce and government, as well as a formidable political weapon.

``Filipinos are addicted to text messaging,'' said Claro ``Lalen'' Parlade, executive director of the Cyberspace Policy Center for Asia- Pacific in Manila. ``It has become a part of our cultural identity.''

Even the guerrillas in the country's embattled southern province of Mindanao, where fighting between splinter groups and the government occasionally flares, find text messaging an indispensable tool. ``No self-respecting rebel would be caught without one or two cell phones,'' said Amina Rasul-Bernardo, who is working to craft peace between the guerrillas and the government.

Rebels here, who often resort to kidnappings, send ransom notes via text messages because their location can't be traced.

In the Philippines, where computer and Internet penetration remains low, text messaging is the equivalent of e-mail and computer instant messaging rolled into one.

As in many other Asian countries, cell phones are a leapfrog technology, enabling people without land lines to go straight to a mobile phone. The low cost of text messages has made them widely popular throughout Asia, which sends the most number of text messages in the world. Of the 2.9 billion text messages sent each day worldwide, nearly 40 percent originate in Asia, compared with 14 percent from North America, according to research firm the Radicati Group in Palo Alto.

With 27 million cell phone subscribers in the Philippines, there are more cell phone accounts than fixed telephone lines. The vast majority of text message senders are people with modest incomes. They buy access in small, prepaid amounts for as little as $1.80, which buys 100 text messages. That makes a text message one-seventh the cost of a voice call from a cell phone.

Vital to economy

Although low in cost, text messages are a critical part of the Filipino economy. Last year, when growth in nearly all major industries was stagnant or in the single digits, the telecommunications industry grew by 17 percent -- boosted by text messaging, said Cielito Habito, director of the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development.

There are also cultural reasons for Filipinos' love affair with text messaging. The technology supports many Filipinos' aversion to even mild confrontation, said Cesar Tolentino, an analyst with telecom research firm XMG-Global in Manila, which is spearheading a study to explain the service's popularity in the country. Many Filipinos use text to ask permission before they call someone on their cell, said Parlade of the Cyberspace Institute.

In a country where personal relationships are key, keeping in constant touch with family and friends is of utmost importance. Nothing is too trivial to prompt a message. More than half of
personal text messages are just greetings less than 100 characters long. ``Hi,'' ``good morning,'' and ``how are you?'' are among the favorites, according to XMG's surveys.

Divina Parreno, a Filipino-American who lives in Milpitas, became hooked on text messaging on a visit in 2001. She routinely sends greetings, as well as jokes, to friends and family in the Philippines -- sometimes as many as 1,000 text messages in one month. (Her service provider is Verizon, which enables her to send text messages internationally.)

``I've been here (in the United States) for 25 years. I lost touch with many friends because I hate writing letters,'' said Parreno, who is in her 40s. ``This is an easy way to keep in touch.''

Text messaging has serious uses, too. In 2001, mass, impromptu protests were staged using text messages by opponents of then- President Joseph Estrada, bringing together 1 million protesters who ultimately toppled Estrada.

Today, cell phones are routinely used to stage political rallies and demonstrations. Equally important is their use to send damaging political jokes at election time, many written and planted by the political parties, Parlade said.

``It's a great tool because Filipinos love jokes,'' he said.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo now swirls in controversy, accused of fixing the election results that enabled her to stay in power. One Web site, Txtpower.org, encourages Filipinos to download a ring tone of a song that jokes about Arroyo's troubles -- as a sign of protest to urge Arroyo to answer the allegations.

For its part, the Filipino government is catching on. Filipinos can now text message Arroyo, as well as other government agencies. The country's equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, in an effort to catch tax scofflaws, holds a text-message lottery with prizes. Citizens are urged to send details of purchases, which are used to catch vendors who don't pay taxes.

Criminal activity

Police stations ask citizens to message in criminal activity and complaints. Even the 911 emergency service can be contacted through text message.

Businesses have milked the trend for profits, with television viewers messaging their favorite soap operas and competing in contests.

All this messaging, of course, is making cell phone companies gleeful. One of the country's two major telecommunications companies, Smart, is rolling out programs where users can pay for retail items with their prepaid minutes.

In the fall, it unveiled a text messaging remittance service -- the first of its kind in the world -- to capitalize on the $9 billion overseas workers send home to the Philippines annually. The bulk of remittances come from workers in the United States who send as much as $1,000 at a time through the service, which charges lower fees than banks, said Tolentino of XMG. The transaction is received as a text message and can be presented at a ``cash center'' for pesos.

Marsha Abenes is helping to fuel the text messaging craze. A student at Technological University of the Philippines in Manila, she recently signed up to send unlimited text messages. She sends messages every free minute, firing off as many as 100 a day.

``The very first thing I do when I wake in the morning is check my phone for messages,'' she said, smiling between rapid-fire key punches. ``I can't live without my phone.''

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