Building digital infrastructure for a digital Philippines

Victor Andres C. Manhit-125


KABIUR RAHMAN RIYAD/UNSPLASH

It is undeniable that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is inextricably linked to the global acceleration and re-prioritization of digital transformation in all sectors of society. Over the last year, we have seen all forms of businesses, from commerce to financial services, healthcare and education, digitize their operations to adapt to the changing landscape and ensure continuity.

The increasingly important role technology plays in our lives is illustrated by a recently released report from WeAreSocial that shows social media usage, ecommerce, streaming content, and video games all seeing significant growth over the past year.

For the Philippines, WeAreSocial found that the country is again at the top of the list in terms of time spent on social media. According to the report, in 2020, Filipinos spent an average of four hours and 15 minutes each day on social media. This figure is 22 minutes higher than the country’s average in 2019 of three hours and 53 minutes and is also almost two hours higher than the global average of two hours and 25 minutes.

Perhaps an even better gauge of this increased usage is the statistics from local providers on data consumption. According to Globe telecom, for the first nine months of 2020, mobile data traffic jumped from 1,200 petabytes in the first nine months of 2019 to 1,762 petabytes this period. That’s a 47% growth in mobile data usage year on year. There was also a 226% jump in the number of users in terms of home broadband, and data traffic soared to 352 petabytes from just 77 petabytes in the same period of 2019.

To keep up with the growing demand for connectivity, internet services must continue to improve. According to a recent report by Ookla, the Philippines’ average download speed for fixed broadband and mobile data has improved by 262.71% and 148.52% from 2016 to 2020. In its January 2021 report, Ookla also found that in terms of mobile internet data speeds, that the Philippines has improved its ranking globally to 86th from its 111th rank in the same month last year. Furthermore, in a report from Open Signal, as of February 2021, the Philippines ranked second globally in terms of 5G versus 4G download speed ratio.

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This progressive improvement of internet speeds in the country must be sustained.

However, for this to happen, the country’s local internet service providers (ISPs) need to continue developing their digital infrastructure. According to the IMD World Digital Competitiveness Rankings 2020, the Philippines ranked top 10 globally in terms of highest investments in telecommunications. They must keep this up.

In addition to the telecommunications sector continuing its vital role in our country’s digital infrastructure development, we must also recognize that the government plays a crucial part.

In other countries, the government itself invests in digital infrastructure development. According to the IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking 2020, ASEAN governments are upgrading their telecommunications infrastructure. This includes neighbors such as Malaysia ($233 million), Thailand ($343 million), and Vietnam ($820 million).

This is not the case, however, here in the Philippines.

Indeed, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) has its National Broadband Plan, which, if implemented, would target deploying fiber optic cables and wireless technologies, particularly in remote areas. However, it’s difficult to imagine how this plan will be implemented this year when the DICT’s proposed P18-billion budget to implement the plan was allocated only P1.85 billion in the 2021 national budget.

While there is no doubt that the DICT will push for more digital infrastructure investment in the 2022 budget, in the meantime, it must continue to support the private sector’s development efforts. One initiative that the government should continue is its effort to streamline the permitting process to construct much-needed cell towers. Last year, the DICT and eight other agencies agreed to simplify the permit processes, targeting a reduction in the timeline for building a single site from more than 200 days to 16 days.

One thing that this pandemic has taught is the importance of the whole-of-society approach to addressing our most pressing challenges. Given the increased importance of connective technology during this pandemic, the continued development of our country’s digital infrastructure is one of the key challenges that requires the combined efforts of multiple sectors of society.

For this reason, we welcome the DICT’s soon to be launched Telecom Tower Watch, a multi-sectoral initiative that will promote the transparency and accountability of all relevant parties in accelerating the building pace of telecommunications towers nationwide. To be launched in partnership with consumer group Citizen Watch Philippines, this will be a series of consultative sessions where the public sector, telecommunications industry, and civil society will be working together to address delays in the expansion of the country’s digital infrastructure.

Telecom Tower Watch will be launched on Thursday (March 11) during a virtual town hall discussion on Building Digital Infrastructure for a Digital Philippines hosted by the Stratbase ADR Institute.

Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the President of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

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