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Commentary: Enabling digital transformation

Paco Pangalangan - Philstar.com
Commentary: Enabling digital transformation
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When people talk about the Philippines' digital transformation, the conversation often focuses on improving the country's digital infrastructure. And that makes sense. Over the past year, the continuous lockdown has forced us to become increasingly reliant on the internet for things like going to work, doing groceries, checking in with your doctor and seeing a movie. 

Furthermore, in addition to being crucial to improving the quality of day-to-day life, a reliable and far-reaching digital infrastructure network is also essential for our digital economy and our long-term economic recovery to be as inclusive as possible.

However, while driving investment into the telecommunications sector is critical, enabling citizen adoption and empowering allied industries are equally vital elements of the digital transformation conversation and should not be overlooked. 

Driving digital infrastructure investment

Indeed, the rise of digital technology during pandemics has forced us to change what we consider essential. Similarly, it has also forced the government to revisit its priorities. Over the last few months, we have seen the government introduce policy reforms that make it easier for our telecommunications companies to develop the country's digital infrastructure further. 

In July 2020, the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) released guidelines for streamlining the permitting process for constructing shared telecommunications towers. By reducing the number of requirements and shortening the processing time for permits, the government hoped to cut down the process from nine months to just 16 days. In reality, the number of days needed still hovers around 30 to 60 days, but a marked improvement, nonetheless.

More recently, the Department of Information and Communications and Technology (DICT) also announced that more reforms are underway to address constraints in digital infrastructure development. According to Undersecretary for Digital Philippines Emmanuel Rey Caintic, among the agency's top policy reforms is the issuance of a joint memorandum circular (JMC) that would streamline and speed up the permitting process for fiber optic networks, common poles, and in-building solutions.

With these reforms from ARTA and the DICT to cut down on red tape in the permitting process, the Philippine government aims to drive more private sector investments into developing the country's digital infrastructure to improve internet speeds and coverage.

Enabling digital adoption

According to the World Bank and the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), the rapid adoption of digital technologies can help the Philippines overcome the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and recover from the economic crisis. 

However, for digital technologies to be widely adopted, the public has to understand the potential, see the relevance and appreciate the value that these technologies have. And the government's ongoing pandemic response effort is the perfect platform to showcase all three.

In some countries, contact tracing applications on mobile phones collects data that can help health authorities identify who patients had been in close contact with. Singapore and South Korea, for instance, we're able to demonstrate the effectiveness of these applications in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

In places like the U.K., A.I.-powered health management systems are used to roll out vaccination programs efficiently. These cloud-based tools can handle vaccine registration, scheduling and optimizing the management of supplies for millions of citizens.

For more Filipinos to see the value and adopt this digital transformation, we have to demonstrate that these technologies are relevant, real and accessible to them. 

Empowering allied stakeholders

The acceleration towards digital transformation has not been without increased risks. In fact, according to a EUROPOL report, there was a sharp increase in disinformation and cybercrime during the pandemic. A Verizon report also found that ransomware is now a significant threat to public administration bodies in the U.S. While here in the Philippines, the government's main website went down for a few hours after being hit with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

With cybersecurity challenges on the rise, the Philippine government must bolster its capacity to respond to cyberattacks. At the same time, it must also take the opportunity to empower allied stakeholders to help it address particular cyberthreats.

For instance, digital piracy is one of the many cybercrimes that increased sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cybersecurity experts warn that hackers can imbed malware, Trojans and virus that expose entire networks to attacks. In addition, piracy also has economic effects on creative industries. 

According to recent research of Media Partners Asia, the legitimate subscription industry is losing an estimated $120 million annually to piracy. In the Philippines, a study found that the domestic film and television industry was one of Asia's biggest losers, with 49% of Filipino respondents admitting to accessing piracy streaming sites.

An effective way of addressing piracy is by allowing internet service providers to implement real-time site blocking of pirated websites. Currently, however, regulators have yet to establish clear-cute site-blocking rules, nor has legislation been passed to institutionalize the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines (IPOPHL) authority to block piracy sites. And eliminate the current protocol in which NTC has to validate, causing delays to real-time blocking.

By providing allied stakeholders with the necessary policy framework, the government can empower them to help combat rising digital risks.

In celebration of National ICT Month this June, let us keep in mind that the effectiveness of the Philippines' digital transformation is reliant on the capacity to drive development and investment in digital infrastructure, enable digital adoption, and empower allied stakeholders. 


Paco Pangalangan is the executive director of think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.

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