But first, better internet
Philippine Daily Inquirer
May 23, 2020 at 5:08 am

Suddenly, it’s now digital or bust. The past two months of lockdown have highlighted the need for technology that can sustain business operations and keep people connected and engaged—from Zoom and various streaming platforms to online banking and shopping, food delivery apps, etc. Advanced technology will even be more essential with the pandemic accelerating the transition to a digital world, especially for sectors such as education, health, retail, and even medicine.

But this shift to the digital economy will only be possible with reliable internet connectivity—and this is the challenge as government policies and business solutions work to adapt to the new normal. The work is cut out for the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), which in its National Broadband Plan (NBP) released in 2017, acknowledged that “Despite the notable progress in the country’s overall internet performance, the Philippines lags behind its peers in terms of affordability, availability and speed of internet access.”

Three years since the blueprint was published, the country still has one of the most expensive internet rates in the world, ranking seventh among 62 countries surveyed by e-commerce firm picodi.com last December. It cost $0.56 (about P28.30) for 1 megabit per second (mbps) or $56 (P2,840) for 100 mbps. That rate should at least offer decent internet speed, but in last month’s Speedtest Global Index, the Philippines was still among the slowest—21 mbps compared to the global average of 74.74 mbps, thus ranking 110th out of 174 countries. Cambodia fared better with 21.30 mbps (ranked 108th), while Singapore was the global leader with a download speed of 198.46 mbps.

In terms of mobile internet speed, the Philippines fell six notches to 121 out of 139 countries, its 12.09 mbps far below the global average of 30.89 mbps. Indonesia, in contrast, improved its ranking by four notches with a speed of 14.02, while South Korea’s 88.01 mbps was the fastest globally.

A 2018 study by the World Bank, “Fostering Competition in the Philippines: The Challenge of Restrictive Regulations,” attributed the high cost of telecoms service in the country to a “high level of market concentration” that operates in fixed-line, mobile telecommunications, and broadband services. The government has sought to address the current duopoly with the entry of a third telco player, Dito Telecommunity, which is mandated to roll out its service in July, or two months from now. Expanding the field is vital if the country is to address the surging demand for, at the very least, reliable internet as more people migrate to the digital platform—from employees working from home, to entrepreneurs, freelancers, and millions of students unable to go back to traditional classrooms.

The DICT has vowed to improve internet service after the quarantine, but it would need critical infrastructure support to reach about 40 percent of the population that still has no access to the internet. The department has undertaken an ambitious free public Wi-Fi program, as mandated by Republic Act No. 10929 or the Free Internet in Public Places Act of 2017, and has reported setting up almost 4,000 Wi-Fi sites nationwide as of this month. Last March, it launched Wi-Fi spots in remote and disadvantaged areas in Albay, Isabela, Palawan, Lanao del Sur, and Davao City. By the end of 2020, the department vows to have 10,000 free Wi-Fi sites all over the country.

Inquirer columnist and former UP Diliman chancellor Michael L. Tan has called on telecoms firms to offer affordable internet plans for students—a worthwhile idea. Internet companies in countries like the United States already offer discounted packages for students and teachers, while in Thailand, the government is providing free internet use to poor students during the COVID-19 crisis. The DICT has also proposed that internet cafés be transformed into digital classrooms or workplaces for those who do not have internet access at home.

In the necessary shift to digital, the government must not only prod the process forward, it must also lead with its own operations. Many government offices remain mired in outdated systems, but the pandemic has provided an opportunity to showcase a bright spot: the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System or PhilGEPS, an online marketplace where government agencies post their procurement requirements, with “COVID-19 response items” prominent these days in the online procurement system. In a display of transparency, the site even posts a list of merchants who have been blacklisted.

The battered economy needs fast, affordable, and stable internet to get back on its feet. Society will need to depend more on digital ways of doing things as the pandemic lingers. Is the country’s online infrastructure stepping up to that landmark task?

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