"The government must put its money where its mouth is."
My laptop and my smartphone have virtually become indispensable extensions of my being. Though raised and educated in a very paper-based, analogue age, when there weren’t any personal computers yet, my life has become so technology dependent that I am never more than an arm’s length away from my electronic devices. I must stay connected to the internet 24/7.
This is the digital milieu that we must all live and work in. The pandemic actually hastened this development—it is the safest and most efficient mode of interacting with each other. Digital technologies provided the ideal interactive medium and at the same time an anti-COVID-19 infection buffer.
When it comes to new technologies, we Filipinos have been leading adaptors, first earning the tag as the “texting capital of the world” in the late 90s. And then when smartphones with cameras came into vogue, became the “selfie capital of the world” in 2014. The recent Digital 2021 study by We are Social and Hootsuite again reported that Filipinos are still number one when it comes to hours spent daily on social media, averaging 4 hours and 15 minutes, practically double the global average of only 2 hours and 25 minutes. The same report also ranked the Philippines first in time logged on to the internet at an average of 10 hours and 56 minutes, an increase by more than an hour from last year and beating the global average by almost four hours.
Data from telecommunications companies actually confirm these findings reflecting the surging demand for mobile data services being driven by the massive shift to remote working (work-from-home), online education, video conferencing, e-commerce, e-banking, e-health, social media, and gaming.
Globe Telecom has reported that mobile data traffic has spiked to 2,517 petabytes in 2020 from 1,699 petabytes the previous year. Smart Communications Inc. for its part also recorded doubled data traffic, reaching a record high of 1,612 petabytes in 2019 from only 824 petabytes in 2018 and quadrupling the 2017 volume.
To cope with this sudden rise of internet users, aggressive investments to expand coverage and improve broadband speeds are being implemented by the big telco players in their wireless and fiber-optic networks.
According to the Ookla Speedtest Global Index, the country’s average mobile Internet speed in January 2021 is now at 25.77 megabits per second (Mbps) showing substantial improvement from 18.49 Mbps in November 2020. Another study by Open Signal, a global analytics company, even commented that “the Philippines has seen impressive improvements in download speeds and 4G availability over the past two years.”
The government on the other hand is also aligning with this global trend of digitization calling for the digital transformation of the bureaucracy, which will then further increase broadband demand. The streamlining of permits for telecommunications towers is a good policy move that will hopefully speed up the construction of cell site towers, but much more has to be done.
Let’s look again at some numbers. As of January 2021, Internet penetration in the Philippines is at 67.0% (Digital 2021, Hootsuite). E-commerce users has grown to 80.2 percent from 76 percent in 2020. The report also cited an increase in Philippine population by 1.5 million (January 2020-January 2021) that in no time will add to the demand for internet connectivity.
It is quite ironic that as Filipinos are ranked the top internet users of the world, the broadband penetration level of the Philippines is “below the expected level of countries with comparable per capita income” (World Bank, 2019) while the media often echo the clamor to improve internet connectivity.
This really boils down to the need for the government to make the development of our digital infrastructure a priority. Governments of ASEAN countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand have been investing seriously in their strategic telecommunications infrastructure. The Philippines has yet to start.
Though we are hearing all these exciting pronouncements of going digital and our potential as a digital economy, it is time for the government to put its money where its mouth is. Top priority should be the immediate implementation of the National Broadband Plan wherein a national fiber-optic backbone will be operationalized using the existing transmission assets of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines. It’s a great plan that, if adequately funded and properly harmonized with the telecommunication assets of the private telcos, will spur countrywide economic growth that we badly need to get out of this deep recession.