Forced into the future

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Forced into the future

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Much had already been said about the State of the Nation Address of the President. An important point there that needs elaboration has to do with the digital economy we are forced to embrace because of the pandemic. The President ranted about the services of the telcos, and in other parts of the speech about the need for government services to be digitalized and implemented online to avoid lines. To my mind, they are one and the same—you need an effective, efficient, affordable and available backbone—to which you can launch the online economy. The landscape of which we are forced into is clearly manifested in the results of the 2019 National ICT Household Survey, which was released in June 2020.  The survey covered communities/barangays, households and individuals. 

At the barangay/community level, the survey showed that 92.1 percent of barangays have access to cellular phone signals, and 60.6 percent of the signals are using 4G technology. However, only 36.3 percent of the barangays have towers suggesting that while signal is available, it may be intermittent or unstable. While the survey did not include whether the community is in an island or not, it is possible that this can still be improved by adding more towers. Last July 23, the Anti-Red Tape Authority has announced that it has led in the signing of the Joint Memorandum Circular involving the Departments of Information and Communications Technology, the Interior and Local Government, Public Works and Highways, Transportation, Health, Human Settlements and Urban Development, Civil Aviation Authority and the Food and Drug Administration. These agencies have agreed to streamline the process of permits, licenses and certificates for shared telecommunication towers. This will effectively lessen the time for the processing of getting the clearance to build towers from nine months to 16 days. This is really a welcome development because many things that will bring us to the future are being prevented by our own existing systems that operate back in time. Hopefully, the facilitation of this process can move up the operations of the third telco and increase the availability of the free community Wi-Fi from the existing 12.2 percent of the communities.

The survey also pointed out that among households, 79.7 percent have no computers and their access to this equipment is mainly through computer shops and in schools/work. 84.3 percent of households also do not have access to the Internet (even if there is available cellular signal) primarily due to the high cost of the service and their lack of equipment to access.  For individuals, they access the Internet primarily for communication (40 percent) and entertainment (30 percent). For those who have access to the Internet, about 20 percent use it for government web site services such as to contribute, to get certification and for educational purpose. Interestingly, the survey also found that more than 40 percent of the individuals are aware of online transactions. However, 85 percent of all respondents have not performed any online transactions. About 2 percent are online retailers and 9 percent are online buyers, and all of them prefer to use cash on delivery as payment method.

These results both show opportunities and threats as the ways of studying, working and doing business have drastically been changed.  The survey has shown a great gap that in reality will require a significant amount of time and money investment to be realized. Since most of our economic activities have been pushed online and work is at home, many of these numbers particularly at the household and individual levels would have changed abruptly in the last four months.  In particular, the shift to online work and learning is pushing households and firms to invest in computer equipment for home use. Consequently, Internet services are now being upgraded leading to a significant increase in sales of Wi-Fi and antenna boosters to increase bandwidth, speed and stability of signals. The telcos also have started to update their services, increasing data access allowances at no or minimal cost.  Businesses have also shifted online, which possibly overwhelmed the established online platform sellers. People have started to open online bank accounts as transactions move to less cash contacts.  Considering the abrupt migration and learning curve of people, it can be said that our existing digital backbone system is holding and is meeting demand, albeit not as we want it to be. 

The threat is mostly on how to translate this abrupt change into learning in basic education and in provision of government services.  Providing permits and clearances to build towers in the fastest time is the first step. Government, however, must work to integrate databases and truly migrate basic services such as tax, realty tax, land/transportation registration, licenses and passports (except new ones), benefits—anything that causes queues, to move online.  And for those who are already online, to make the system work efficiently.  The future has overtaken us, government should take the lead to keep us with the pace and that starts by fixing its own processes that keep us back in time.

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