(STAR) The rise of broadband Internet has brought changes in the Philippines, first in highly urbanized areas, and now even in some of the countryís farthest provinces. High-speed access to information is increasingly becoming available, opening doors to many remote regions, one of them being Mt. Province.

Home to 140,439 people (NSO 2000 census), Mt. Province is nestled at the heart of the Cordilleras in Northern Luzon, and is characterized by very steep slopes and deep ravines. Its hot springs, caves and mountain ranges are popular with backpackers and tourists seeking unusual getaways.

Its 10 municipalities were recently linked up with the rest of the world with broadband Internet. One area that has been reaping the benefits of the connection is the small town of Sagada.

Dubbed as the Philippine version of Shangri-la, Sagada is a remote but lovely place that is well-known for its cold climate, lush pine forests, challenging rocky terrain, pristine waterfalls, centuries-old burial cave, rice terraces and hanging coffins.

Located approximately 400 kilometers north of Manila, this rural town is blessed with amazing sceneries, making it an idyllic haven to inhabitants and visitors alike.

Opposite a bus stop at the townís doorstep is a small gift shop thatís well known not only among locals but also foreigners. It sells ethnic crafts and items representative of the regionís culture, such as woodcarvings, hand-woven fabrics and baskets, jewelry, and other intricate pieces of art.

It is also connected big time Ė via wireless broadband. The owner uses the Internet to receive and coordinate orders for items such as woodcarvings, home decorations and accessories from clients.

"Itís really convenient since all they have to do is e-mail me their preferred designs and their dimensions," he says.

Being in a place as far-off as Sagada hasnít hindered the owner from expanding his market. He regularly exports products to Europe. "I receive orders via e-mail from places such as London," he says. "I order wood from Cagayan and brass from Pampanga, and then I assemble their orders here in Sagada. Then I follow the designs and dimensions clients give to me through e-mail and I send the items to Europe."

The shopís owner is connected to the Internet through Smart Wi-Fi, the fixed wireless broadband Internet service of Smart Communications Inc. Now rebranded and launched as Smart Bro, the wireless broadband service is up to several times the speed of regular dial-up connections, making surfing the Web and chatting online faster and easier.

The owner also uses the Internet to shop for carpentry tools, plus other items for personal use. "I usually visit the online auctions such as eBay," he says. He also adds that his children use the Internet to research for schoolwork.

Also situated in the town is the Sagada National High School, a public secondary school that is at par with private high schools. Students here are very fluent in English.

From the traditional method of studying textbooks Ė that are sometimes either hard to get hold of or a little expensive for the schoolís limited budget Ė the teachers now use the broadband Internet to research on topics they need to discuss.

"Itís so much easier to make our lesson plans now that we have an Internet connection," says Joseph Caligtan, a teacher.

"The Web provides us with so many resources. Once we find the information we need for our lectures, all we have to do is check for revisions, incorporate the material to our lesson plan, and have it printed so it could be readily used for our discussions," Caligtan explains. "This new procedure definitely saves time and enables us to teach more efficiently."

The school also subscribes to Smartís wireless broadband service. Teachers here pool their resources for the P999 monthly subscription fee. Soon the teachers need not chip in their personal money for their wireless broadband Internet subscription, as Sagada National High School has been adopted by Smart Communications Inc. to be part of the Smart Schools Program.

The Smart Schools Program is a community service project of the company that promotes information and communications technology (ICT) in basic education by providing public school teachers and students with broadband Internet connectivity.

The Sagada National High School joins 39 other schools nationwide that are connected through the Smart Schools Program using the PLDT groupís various Internet access technologies Ė PLDT myDSL, Mabuhay Satelliteís VSAT, and Smart Bro Ė depending on their location.

While local Internet service providers (ISPs) have made the Internet accessible to many provinces in the country, some provinces still have to bear with poor Internet services due to their geographic location and the steep costs of satellite connection, particularly in some northern provinces.

Increasing availability and affordability of broadband Internet services such as Smartís wireless broadband service is spurring growth in usage in rural areas nationwide, such as in Sagada and the other municipalities of Mt. Province.

Fixed wireless broadband does not require telephone or cable connections; it instead makes use of Smart cell sites in the area. The computer is actually connected by cable to a Smart Bro outdoor antenna. The "wireless" component is the direct "line-of-sight" connection from the outdoor antenna to the nearest Smart cell site for the strongest possible signal.

While some people feel that that there is a wide technological gap between the Philippines and other nations, the digital divide is more clearly felt among our people. Making affordable wireless broadband Internet conveniently available to more communities, like Sagada, would help bridge this technological gap and open more doors of opportunities. ó Erica Cortez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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