AGILA II: PHILIPPINES IN CYBERSPACE


WE celebrated the coming of the New Year last week with great joy and thanksgiving like most people around the Philippines as viewed on TV programs. The festivities were truly full of hope and merry-making with extravaganzas and fireworks displays held in Sydney, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Paris, London, Berlin, New York, and particularly Metro Manila. The New Year celebrations of Pinoys seemed rowdier than the others despite the gun ban because, after all, it is "more fun in Philippines." For this writer the arrival of the New Year was likewise intense, explosive, hope-full, and prayerful in many ways. Except for the absence of one daughter and granddaughter who were in Atlanta, the whole family was around.

One other particular event 15 years ago, FVR recalls, sparked a New Year-like, nationwide celebration after months of anticipation and high expectations. Filipinos were uplifted and filled with pride when they became aware of the Philippines' first cyberspace achievement. Our spirit of unity and patriotism was aroused and heightened.

The Philippine 'Agila II'

The 20th of August, 1997, was a proud moment for most Filipinos because it was on this day at 1:58 a.m. that the Philippines signaled its formal entry into cyberspace with the successful launch of our country's first communication satellite, "Agila II," appropriately named after our national bird, the giant monkey-eating eagle. According to senior journalist Ben Cal (Philippine News Agency):

"The whole country led by President Ramos, awaited the ambitious launching of the 'Agila II' satellite (postponed several times due to bad weather). As the countdown started, various high government officials and executives of the Mabuhay Philippines Satellite Corporation (a PLDT subsidiary) who watched the launch live on television at Bahay Pangarap, Malacañang Park, early dawn that day were apprehensive. The anxiety during the countdown ended when the rocket booster carrying 'Agila II' zoomed into outer space at a blinding speed of 27,200 kms per hour.

"For 24 minutes after the rocket blasted off from China's space center in Xichiang, Sichuan Province, a small crowd of people, including President FVR and MPSC's Chairman Tony Boy Cojuangco watching anxiously, was overwhelmed with joy as it viewed the lift-off on a special television hookup.

"It was the first time a Filipino consortium, led by PLDT, ventured into the lucrative satellite business, investing PHP1.9 billion. Chairman Cojuangco was quite nervous as he watched the spaceship carrying the 'Agila II' satellite make a perfect blastoff."

Everyone gathered in Malacañang Park that night prayed hard for a successful launch. The most crucial was the flight's first 24 minutes when the rocket had to overcome three separation stages to put the "Agila" in orbit 24,000 kms up in space. The first separation came 10 minutes after the lift-off; followed by the second separation five minutes later. The most anxious moments were the final 14 minutes when it would be confirmed whether or not the launching of the US$243 million satellite was successful.

There was a premature celebration when a Mabuhay official inadvertently announced two minutes before the end of the 24-minute initial flight that the third rocket stage had made a successful separation, prompting the viewers to exchange rousing toasts and loud cheers.

Anxious Moments Before and After

FVR was responsible for giving the satellite its nickname "Agila II" after previously issuing a Presidential Proclamation changing the Philippine national bird "Maya" (ricebird) to "Agila," the world's largest eagle which is the monkey-eating eagle indigenous to our archipelago. ("Agila I" which was the old Indonesia-owned "Palapa" satellite on which our then limited cyber networks had been riding was soon to fall out of orbit).

The confirmation of the successful orbiting of Agila II after seemingly interminable moments exploded into a riot of cheers, applause, congratulations, and thumbs-up signs.

Chinese space officials had taken every precaution for the perfect launch of our "Agila II." At that time, it was the region's biggest and most powerful satellite that covered the Asia-Pacific rim, encompassing the Philippines, Eastern China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Indochina, Thailand, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Hawaii - thus covering 60% of the world's land area. Agila II had a 10-kilowatt power rating and was capable of commercial operations for 15 years.

Agila II was launched atop a Chinese Long March CZ3B rocket, but was being monitored, managed, and controlled by top Filipino engineers from a space center on Philippine territory in Subic. It featured the biggest number of transponders among the satellites in the region and was equipped with 30 C-band and 24 Ku-band transponders at 27 and 110 watts, respectively.

The Agila II satellite, a prime example of PLDT-Mabuhay's presence in the emerging global broadcast satellite market in the Asia-Pacific region, was an advanced high-power creation designed by Space Systems/Loral (SS/L), the world's leader in satellite technology.

The Subic Space Center provided spacecraft control functions, including test-on-station operations and payload reconfiguration. It was highly automated with complete data storage facilities, logistic and support capabilities, and was designed to support mission operations simultaneously with communications to provide real-time verification of payload performance. To make sure it had the best people to control the satellite, Mabuhay selected a team of Filipino engineers to train in SS/L in Palo Alto, California, for two years.

The successful completion of the Agila launch heralded our entry into the space age and likewise the take-off of our strategic plan called "Philippines 2000" to achieve enduring peace and sustainable development.

The justifiable frenzy of patriotism, joy, pride, unity, and high expectations persisted for some time thereafter and was acclaimed by worldwide observers.

Goodbye, Philippine Satellite

Hi-tech journalists Art Villasanta and Peter Galace, writing for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, reported on 17 January 2011 the following depressing, yet helpful, observations which our national decision-makers must significantly address in 2013:

"Sometime in 2012, Agila II, the Philippines only in-orbit satellite, will quietly wink out of existence and become one of the more than 600,000 bits of space junk cluttering the four orbital bands above this planet.

"The demise of the $243-million Agila II, which was launched in 1997, will not only mean the loss of the last Philippine satellite. More ominous is that the death of Agila II will also highlight the country's apparent disdain for sophisticated technology that makes possible the wonders of the Internet and ubiquitous mobile telecommunications.

"The loss of Agila II will also be a serious blow to our technological independence. It implies future generations of Filipinos will depend on the satellites of competitor nations for secure military and business telecommunications.

"And in a digital age where technology multiplies national power, future Filipinos will become hostage to the whims of other nations.

"It would indeed be a pity if we can't launch and operate another Philippine satellite profitably. Our ASEAN neighbors operate not one but a number of satellites.

"Indonesia has nine satellites; Malaysia has four; Singapore, nine; and Thailand, five. Even Vietnam now controls and profitably operates its own satellite and will launch a second in 2012.

"Quite apart from protecting national security, a satellite is also a money-making machine that brings in advanced technology. The satellite service market in the Philippines in 2010 was valued at some $120 million, quite impressive because of surging demand for ICT services from the private and government sectors. It's clear a Philippine satellite could be operated profitably."

Cyber Threats To Philippine Security

In our column "Global Threats" (01 Apr 2012), we recorded FVR's participation in the 2012 Jakarta International Defense Dialogue on "Non-Traditional Security Threats" which was keynoted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Ramos wrote:

"In the eyes of experts like William Lynn, US Deputy Defense Secretary, cyber warfare 'is the new domain in national security which is just as critical to military operations as land, sea, air, and space.' CW is a form of information warfare through which sabotage, espionage and disruption are conducted against the assets of a country, institution, or individual.

"The theft of intellectual property by hackers, the leaking out of fiction disguised as fact, and the uploading of propaganda and other libelous 'blind shots' are now common occurrences. In truth, of boring frequency are reports of losses of bank deposits because of one's carelessness in the use of ATMs, credit cards, and other documents containing biometric information."

Let us forget about weapons of mass destruction in the meantime, and concentrate on the threats to common Filipinos from cyberspace technology managed by other countries.

In the recent past, hundreds of young Mandarin-speaking hackers were uncovered, arrested, detained, and deported by Philippine authorities right under the noses of their unwary neighbors in the Metro Manila and Calabarzon areas. Surely out there, hundreds more of these cyber pirates/smugglers/traffickers and evil-doers are preparing to prey on Filipino victims - maybe from within your office building itself.

HALF OF THIS CATASTROPHIC SITUATION THAT WOULD ENFEEBLE OUR NATION COULD BE PREVENTED - IF WE CONTROLLED OUR DAILY CYBER COMMUNICATIONS AND TRANSACTIONS WITH OUR OWN PHILIPPINE SATELLITE. WHAT A CHALLENGE - WHY NOT AN AGILA III DURING THE TIME OF AQUINO III?

KAYA BA NATIN ITO???

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