Sitting in a sprawling office in the Philippine financial district of Makati, a phalanx of Filipinos sit behind computers answering mobile text messages sent in by Americans.
The California-based firm, AskMeNow, offers the novel service to American cell phone users which let them send in any questions through text messages, ranging from weather reports, sports scores, general information and trivia to settle bar-room bets.
But it is the Filipino staff who do the research and send the answers back to cellphones on the other side of the world - another case where a foreign firm has found the Philippines an ideal site for locating back-office functions, call centers and other forms of business process outsourcing.
Mark Cohen, managing director of AskMeNow, said they chose to locate in the Philippines because workers in this former U.S. colony have a better understanding of American culture and language and are highly skilled in English.
He cited the Philippines as \"an excellent source of knowledge-based workers,\" as well as telecommunications engineers, adding that \"most of our expansion will be in the Philippines.\"
Such advantages have made the Philippines a growing competitor to India and China in attracting investment in call centers, business processing, medical transcription and other jobs that require skills with desktop computers.
The government\'s Board of Investments estimates that 112,000 people are now working in call centers in this country, bringing in US$1.12 billion in revenues this year, a sharp increase from 2000 when call centers employed just 2,400 people and earned US$24 million.
Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Augusto Santos believes the industry\'s growth may even be faster than the government has realized, remarking that many cases of business process outsourcing go unrecorded.
The government boasts that the Philippines has cost-competitive, highly-skilled, readily-available labor with low overhead and a strategic location, easily accessible to major Asian cities and the U.S. West Coast.
It cites a study conducted by the Swiss International Institute for Management Development in 2004 that found that among Asian countries, the Philippines was number one in the availability of skilled labor.
When the industry first started in the late-1980s, it handled mainly e-mail response but it can now handle \"almost any type of customer interaction,\" ranging from support in travel, financial, technical, education and consumer-oriented fields.
One study by the Manila-based University of Asia and the Pacific, said the Philippines was a prime competitor for India thanks to the superior skills in English and its closer affinity to Western culture.
The Philippines hopes to capture about five percent of business process outsourcing globally by 2010, amounting to as much as US$10 billion.
But there are concerns over the industry\'s ultimate competitiveness. Many critics have warned that the English proficiency of Filipino graduates has been going down for years.
A report by McKinsey and Company, a research arm of the McKinsey Global Institute, an economics think-tank, credited the Philippines with having higher quality and more suitable manpower than India with costs that are almost as low.
But the report, issued last September,said the country scored average or below average in such areas as non-labor costs like power, political and security risks, a less hospitable business environment and bureaucracy.
It warned that the Philippines must develop a clear strategy to attract foreign investment in this sector, improve its infrastructure and boost the quality of the labor supply particularly in the area of English language.
\"The number one problem, admittedly is the declining supply of English speaking students,\" concedes Jennet Carillo, the Board of Investment\'s officer in charge of information technology.
To remedy this, Manila has improved the quality of English instruction and in 2003, launched a program where colleges will integrate special English courses \"for international business,\" in their curricula- precisely to address the call centers\' concerns, Carillo said.
She remarks that in her coordination with the industry, neither power and infrastructure have emerged as major worries for potential investors.
Manila\'s new thrust is to expand BPO operations to other major cities in the country such as Cebu City and Davao City where salaries and costs are lower and where unemployment is more serious.
To encourage this trend, the government wants to make sure that prospective host cities can meet the requirements in regard to sufficient power supplies, telecommunications infrastructure and fiber optic facilities.
They are also expanding the industry to higher level information technology sectors like software development, engineering design, computer graphics and animation.
The government also hopes that business outsourcing will spread to other fields, providing jobs to the country\'s many accountants and lawyers.