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This revolution will be text-messaged

Filipinos have been masters of using text messages to rally political protesters. So what happened during last month's failed coup d'etat? Photos: Philippines as texting central

MANILA, Philippines--When several Filipino military officers last month attempted to overthrow the government by taking over a hotel in Manila's business district, I expected to witness firsthand the power of the Philippines' famed text-messaging brigades.

But I was wrong. No one showed up.

Just seven hours after the standoff began at the five-star Peninsula Manila hotel in Makati City, it was over. The coup's ringleader, Antonio Trillanes, a former naval officer and elected senator, along with several other people, including the former vice president of the Philippines, a Catholic bishop, and several journalists, were arrested and hauled off to jail.

What happened? I wondered. Had no one gotten the text messages? Were the two biggest telecommunications providers, Smart Communications and Globe, experiencing an SMS outage? Had the government blocked the messages from being delivered?

More important, did they really intend this to be coup by text message? In the Philippines, that shouldn't be much of a surprise. Text messaging is by far the most widely used mobile data service in the world, with roughly 72 percent of all mobile-phone users in 2006 having been active SMS users. But nowhere is it more widely used than in the Philippines. Filipinos send on average between 12 and 15 SMS messages a day.

But the people leading the coup last month seemed to have made a big mistake: they did it during working hours. Edna Maguigad, a lawyer for the Alternative Legal Assistance Center, said she got more than a dozen messages encouraging her to join the protest. But Maguigad, a politically active 31-year-old who is no fan of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's government, quite simply said she had no time for protests.

"I kept getting messages from people, 'Come down to Makati, big protest, show your support,'" she said. "But it was like 2 p.m. I had to work. And the traffic would have been a nightmare."

Indeed, anyone who knows Manila can attest that traffic is almost always bad. But throw in an attempted coup and protest in the busy business district of Makati City and the city's highways and byways practically become parking lots.

In fact, the one text message I received about the coup had been forwarded to me from the U.S. Embassy by my friend who works for the U.S. State Department. The message that was sent to employees and their families went something like this: "Demonstration in Makati City in the vicinity of the Manila Peninsula hotel. Traffic expected to be heavy. Avoid the area."

Various newspapers reported that Trillanes and his supporters sent hundreds of text messages while holed up in the Peninsula. But even though their efforts may have failed, historically the technology has been used very successfully in organizing other protests here. In fact, in 2001 millions of text messages were sent as Filipinos turned up the heat on disgraced President Joseph Estrada. After tens of thousands of protesters hit the streets of Manila, Estrada was forced out of office. And Arroyo took over the presidency.

Now Arroyo's political rivals are trying to use the same tactics to overthrow her government. Opponents have criticized the legitimacy of her rule from the start, and she has been fighting allegations that she tampered with election results in 2004.

Still, the Philippines is not the only country in the world where text messaging has been used as a tool to rally political protesters. Text messages played an important role earlier this year in gathering people in Jena, La., to express their anger when six young African-Americans were believed to be overzealously prosecuted for assault.

Hundreds of thousands of urgent text messages were sent to cell phones in Xiamen, China, warning that the construction of a chemical plant there would destroy the environment. Public outrage was strong enough to shut down the project.

Activists in Pakistan also leveraged the technology earlier this year to organize themselves against martial law there. And text messaging was seen as such a threat that during the recent protests in Myanmar, authorities temporarily suspended the service.

But text messaging has been particularly useful and popular in the Philippines.

The reason is simple. It's cheap, far cheaper than making voice phone calls. Globe, one of the two largest mobile carriers in the Philippines, charges between 6.50 and 7.50 pesos (15 to 17 cents) per minute for a voice call. But text messages cost only 1 peso, or about 1 cent per message. What's more, prepaid plans give as many as 65 free text messages per load.

"I can't even use all the free text messages they give me," said Stephanie Rahill, an American living and working in Manila.

With roughly 30 percent of the entire population living on less than a dollar a day, according the United Nations, cost is an important issue for Filipinos, especially as cell phones start penetrating even the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

More than 53 million people are expected to own a cell phone in the Philippines by the end of 2007, according to a recent study by CD Castro Consultancy, a Philippines-based consulting firm specializing in telecommunications. This puts the penetration rate somewhere around 60 percent of the population. By contrast, the CTIA, the mobile industry association in the U.S., has predicted that more than 250 million Americans will subscribe to cell phone service in 2007 for a penetration rate of over 82 percent.

But beyond just being cheap, cell phone operators in the Philippines have also made it easy for people to purchase service. As in other developing countries, most mobile users buy prepaid voice cards instead of subscribing to expensive contracts.

In an effort to make it easier for customers to "top up" their phones, Smart and Globe allow users to purchase credit electronically from retailers who transfer the credit to their phones. Signs reading "E-Load" appear in almost every village. The companies also offer top-ups in denominations as small as 30 pesos.

The cheap service plans have made it easier for even the poorest Filipinos to afford cell phone service. And experts say these cutthroat prices, coupled with a robust market for used and secondhand phones, will likely increase the volume of cell phone users and as a result text messaging in general.

With only about 30 people showing up to the most recent attempt at a government overthrow, it seems the era of "people power" protests could be over in the Philippines. But I'm sure this week's nationwide Jeepney driver strike gave Filipinos struggling with another traffic headache plenty to discuss via SMS.