The sound of clinking coins fills a narrow alley in Metro Manila. In the backstreets of Pasig City, children stream in and out of a corner shop, noisily exchanging bills for pesos before stampeding next door to a row of mini-internet vending machines: pisonets.

“Pisonets are necessities,” said Madeleine Casim from behind the counter of her corner shop. It’s especially true in areas like this, she added, where phone signal is sparse. Next door, business is brisk at the pisonet business she has been running for the past five years.

In the slums and rural areas of the country, coins are the currency of the internet. Drop one Philippine peso (around 2 cents) into the slot at a pisonet stall, and a timer begins counting down five minutes of screen time.

What can you get done with five minutes of internet? Surprisingly, a lot. Even with coronavirus lockdowns and curfews, pisonet businesses are somehow surviving; schoolchildren are devoted clients, feeding in a stream of pesos to complete classwork or to lose themselves in multiplayer games. The machines crop up in the run-down alleyways of central Manila, where, according to various groups, an estimated 60% of people in low-income neighborhoods don’t own laptops or smartphones.

As the pandemic spread through the Philippines in early 2020, distancing meant that more people required an internet connection to pay bills, make transactions, study, and work. Its poorest residents weren’t exempt, even if they didn’t have the same access. When schooling morphed into what public officials called “blended learning,” a mix of online lectures and printed-out modules, schoolchildren scrambled to pisonet machines, sometimes dropping in a peso and taking photos of their online syllabuses before rushing home to complete them.

Over the last decade, with a telco duopoly keeping data and broadband prices artificially high and unaffordable for many, the Philippine pisonet machine business has grown up between the cracks. Those providers that didn’t close under Manila’s harsh movement curbs — in place since mid-2020 and strictly enforced — have grown more crucial than ever for the Filipinos who need them. 

But with the city lurching in and out of lockdowns, businesses are often run in secret, and their legality depends on the whims of local officials. That, in turn, has left space for the telco giants to swoop in with their own bite-size internet plans — which are, of course, much pricier.

Gatekeeping of internet access is a fact of life in the Philippines, where the market is shaped by the telecommunications duopoly. President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to seize the telco giants, Globe and PLDT, if they didn’t improve their service by the end of 2020. Like much of his bluster, though, the threat has failed to have an effect. 

The duopoly has existed for decades. Filipino consumers are left to choose between the two firms, whose competition dictates how fast or slow internet speeds run and how much the public will end up paying for it. A third player, Dito Telecommunity Corp., a consortium between China Telecom and Udenna Corp. owned by Duterte-allied businessman Dennis Uy, has only recently arrived to upset the balance.

Its entry, and the extra competition, could likely uplift business owners like Casim and the communities she serves, Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos, an independent telecommunications researcher, told Rest of World, though she believes the effects would take time. “The lack of a competitive market environment means that there is no incentive for the incumbents to invest more,” she said, “as profits will keep coming despite [that].”

Pisonet machines have roots in the Philippine style of consumerism known as tingi, which refers to the practice of buying bit by bit, at need, rather than in advance. In the city, a reliable internet service can cost around 1,300 pesos (roughly $25) monthly — far too expensive for many residents to pay upfront. Rather, in the same way these Filipinos buy shampoo and cigarettes piecemeal, they have grown into the habit of consuming their internet a single use at a time.

“The lack of a competitive market environment means that there is no incentive for the incumbents to invest more as profits will keep coming despite [that].”

The machines resemble hulking arcade game units, with a screen fitted into large metal casing. Inside is a CPU, connected to the internet. When the five minutes are up, the computer itself doesn’t disconnect from the network — only the monitor goes blank, requiring another coin to wake up again. Another variety of the machine, pisowifi, allows customers to bring their own devices and connect to a fast, semiprivate network.

When Dr. Cheryll Ruth Soriano, a digital cultures and information communications technology  professor at De La Salle University in Manila, began researching pisonets, her team expected to find that the concept had been imported from Malaysia, or Indonesia or China. They were surprised to trace the idea back to Dagupan City in the northern Philippines, and to find it had been created as a rural answer to internet cafés. “You don’t need sophisticated knowledge to be able to create the pisonet mechanism, but it needed an imperative,” Soriano told Rest of World.

Pisonet stalls in Manila were subject to strict curfews during lockdown, and those that stayed open ran the risk of being closed by authorities.

The need for entertainment didn’t go away with the lockdowns, though. Two years ago, Ian Lumbab, 28, took a gamble by setting up 10 pisonet units in the back of his home outside of rural Mindanao. Soon, school-aged children turned up to play games like Roblox’s Rules of Survival at such a rate that he was quickly forced to invest in more equipment — keyboards, headsets, even gaming chairs. 

“I replace my keyboards monthly,” he told Rest of World in a video call over Facebook Messenger. “If the player loses a match, they take it out on the keyboard. Chairs aren’t safe either, nor headsets.”

When he sold three units as traffic dipped over a quiet period, they were quickly snapped up by other enterprising neighbors in the area. 

After his costs — fiber internet, electricity, teenage boys damaging his PC hardware — Lumbab estimates that he makes the equivalent of $100 a month. This is fine, he said, as it’s a passive side gig to his daily grind as a local public servant. 

Pisonet-owner Madeleine Casim in Manila, who started earlier, has fared better. When she started in the streets of Pasig back in 2016 with six computer units and borrowed capital of $2,000, the machines made her a tidy income, with an average of $40 daily at their peak use. “Return on investment? It was fast. Capital came back in two to three months,” she told Rest of World.

But since 2020, the curbs on gathering and strict limitations on retail, which hit cramped, poor neighborhoods, have not been kind to pisonet businesses. While formal data doesn’t exist on the number of pisonet outlets, it’s currently not uncommon to see pisonet units being resold on Facebook Marketplace. Casim, anecdotally, described various pisonet stalls in her area as having shut over the past two years.

Ironically, pisonet providers rely on the duopoly, even while they provide an alternative. Casim gets her internet from a fiber-optic connection installed by Globe, which is owned by the huge Ayala Corp. and Singapore-based Singtel. Lumbab, on the other hand, switched last year to PLDT, its direct competitor. PLDT is run by First Pacific, a sprawling Hong Kong–based conglomerate with interests in everything from telcos to consumer food products.

“The internet is ever evolving. Even cellphones are affordable now. I think [the pisonet] business will eventually disappear.”

Dr, Soriano told Rest of World that, for now, she still sees the pisonet business as irreplaceable as a social enterprise. By paying in installments, she said, people can access a personal computer and internet who otherwise couldn’t have. 

Now, telcos themselves have begun to offer data packages that imitate the pisonet model. For 10 pesos a day, they now say, a smartphone owner can have just enough data to surf Facebook. It’s still far more expensive than the pisonet services but means that a smartphone owner needn’t move from the comfort of their sofa to have an idle browse.

Ian Lumbab, in Mindanao, will run his business as long as his entertainment-hungry customers keep coming. But he’s not hopeful about the service being long-lived — he knows it has a stopgap function. “I don’t know if the pisonet business could strongly earn in the future,” he told Rest of World. “The internet is ever evolving. Even cellphones are affordable now,” he added. “I think this business will eventually disappear.”