"A nationwide expansion and upgrade of our digital infrastructure should be the top priority."
Digital technology has become the big savior in this global pandemic. Almost instantly, Filipinos have learned to shift from a mostly analog and paper-based mode of living to a dominantly tech-enabled pandemic lifestyle. The threat of infection has created an invisible force that is moving our lives online with our mobile devices as the default interface for interaction in this physically distanced new normal.
Most palpable is the booming e-commerce ecosystem that is becoming the fastest-growing economic engine that Filipino consumers have logged on to and is changing the retail landscape of the country. Online shopping is no longer a novelty but is now the preferred mode of purchasing. Virtually anything you need can be order and delivered directly to your doorstep through online marketplace platforms. To fulfill each transaction, these platforms needs the support of a robust logistics system which in itself has become an essential industry in the supply chain.
Directly integrated to the online market are digital payments systems that have enabled people to pay bills, send or receive financial support, and purchase goods without leaving the safety of their homes.
According to the World Bank’s Philippine Digital Economy Report 2020, “In addition to keeping people safe when carrying out payment transactions, the use of digital payment services is key to increasing efficiency, promoting financial inclusion, and enabling the digital economy as the country transitions to the ‘new normal’. Digital payment services increase efficiency by removing frictions in payment processes and reducing the cost of doing business. The transition from the use of cash and checks to digital payments significantly lowers the cost of payment, and accelerates payment processes for merchants and expand the transaction scale of digital payments which will bring in more digital payments through a network effect. Digital payments also promote financial inclusion, especially for the unbanked population. Mobile money schemes, for example, allow individuals who own a phone but do not have a bank account to save money and carry out transactions.”
Clear evidence of the e-commerce boom is shown in the recent report of the Department of Trade and Industry of over 75,000 online businesses that registered from January to August of this year of which, 73,276 registered since the lockdowns began.
Business data platform Statista noted in its overview of Philippine e-commerce that the popularity of online shopping has caused many small and medium businesses to shift to online retail.
“Social media platforms are used, like Facebook and Instagram, among small-scale entrepreneurs. Unsurprisingly, because of the recent COVID-19 pandemic in the country, turning to small-scale retail sellers have become popular because of the benefits it provides to both sellers and consumers,” Statista’s report said.
With the easing of community quarantine restrictions to reboot economic activity, the country’s broadband networks will become more congested as millions of users compete for bandwidth to do their online activities. To meet the exponential rise in demand for wireless broadband services, a nationwide expansion and upgrade of our digital infrastructure should be a top priority in the government’s economic recovery strategy.
The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) says we have a backlog of some 50,000 new cell towers, a problem that has stymied the telecommunications industry for several administrations because of a gauntlet of permitting barriers and permits from the local and national bureaucracy. To stop these delays a joint memorandum order that cut permitting timelines to 16 days from what used to take an average of 8 months to hurdle over 30 permits. The recently signed Bayanihan to Recover as One law provides for the streamlining of the permitting process for telecom towers. Plans have been announced to step up construction of 2,500 cell towers as part of DICT’s common tower initiative.
Independently, SMART and Globe Telecom will be rolling out their respective telecom towers next year to aggressively expand their mobile networks. The telco giants recently announced securing over 660 and 630 permits respectively.
PLDT Chairman and CEO Manuel V. Pangilinan said, “As we complete the build-out of our 4G network so that our coverage will be as close as possible to 100 percent, we are building out our 5G network as well.”
Globe Telecoms president and CEO Ernest Cu in a statement said, “Altogether, access to the internet for Filipinos has never been more affordable and pervasive as it is now as we continue increasing investments to expand and improve our fiber network infrastructure to serve the people’s work from home and online-education activities.”
These developments clearly illustrate how responsive policies can build the momentum of our digital economy. In this case, the public sector working with the two telcos to build more telecom towers is getting results after just two months, more than threats and tirades.