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Building the digital foundations for our new normal

The Covid-19 pandemic has now become, whether we want it or not, a global instigator for change. In our country, the pandemic has brought to light the strengths and weaknesses of our current digital infrastructure, and how well (or not) we make use of the connectivity the Internet provides.
Repeaters on a metal tower. Camiguin, Philippines

The Covid-19 pandemic has now become, whether we want it or not, a global instigator for change. In our country, the pandemic has brought to light the strengths and weaknesses of our current digital infrastructure, and how well (or not) we make use of the connectivity the Internet provides.

For example, according to Acting Socioeconomic Secretary Karl Chua’s presentation in a recent webinar, Internet users in the Philippines tripled to 73 million between 2010 and 2020. Filipinos, on average, spend nearly 10 hours a day online, with half of the time on a mobile connection, and four hours on social media. And the value added of the digital economy has posted double-digit growth averaging over 13 percent from 2012 to 2018.

And yet, the Philippines still has one of the most expensive Internet rates in the world, where users have to pay up to P2,840 for 100MBps speeds. Our average Internet speed is still among the slowest, at 21Mbps, making us the 110th out of 174 countries in Speedtest’s Global Index. It’s the same for our mobile Internet, where we are 121st out of 139 countries at an average of 12.09Mbps. And we’re not even talking yet about how coverage is a problem where many areas of the country—even some parts of the NCR—have poor reception and connection.

It’s no wonder then that the implementation of digital solutions in the country has been problematic. For instance, while the Department of Education has prepared online learning platforms such as the DepEd Commons, only 48 percent of public schools have Internet connectivity. And while blended learning (a combination of online and offline forms of instruction) will be the primary mode in the coming school year, only 20 percent of state universities and colleges are ready for online classes.

So what can we do to address all of this?

The first step would be to address the physical infrastructure that connects people to the online world. Common towers, access points, cell sites—these and other physical network systems should be prioritized.  Fast-tracking the implementation of the Free Wi-fi Internet in Public Spaces Act could also be a component of the “Build, Build, Build” program. South Korea, one of the most digitally-connected countries in the world, has allocated up to $62 billion for its economic stimulus, which includes an infrastructure package that will focus in part on rolling out 5G networks and using artificial intelligence to create new jobs and accelerate the development of digital processes and solutions in “old” or traditional industries.

Next, we should start emphasizing digital literacy and skills to enable our people to maximize the opportunities provided by Internet connectivity. That’s why we filed SBN 1470, the National Digital Transformation Act. Its end goal is to create a national framework that will encourage digital competency, concentrating on information, data literacy, communication, collaboration, and digital content creation, among other things. We should also be helping not only individuals, but also MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) go online, by promoting the digitization of businesses, through four core digital activities: maintaining a Web presence, selling online, using cloud computing technologies, and digitizing back-office functions.

We also have to implement the Philippine Identification System, or PhilSys. The creation of a digital identity serves many purposes, which have been realized successfully in other countries. In India, financial inclusion went from 35 percent in 2011 to 80 percent in 2017 after their national ID system was introduced. In the early 2000s, Thailand was able to reach 98 percent health coverage, by using their national ID system to find out who was not covered yet. Pakistan managed to save $248 million in funds following floods in 2010 by cross-referencing databases using their national ID’s unique identification number.

Our digital readiness needs improvement on so many fronts. It requires no less than a multi-departmental approach that should streamline processes, expand the scope of influence, and shape digital solutions to the needs of our people. Integrating digital resources into our work skills, industries, and economy is an important step, if we are to thrive in the new normal.

Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years—nine years as representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and six as senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He recently won another term in the Senate.

E-mail: sensonnyangara@yahoo.com| Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @sonnyangara.

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