News Commentary

Let there be more for ICT infrastructure under 'Build Better More'

Louie Montemar - Philstar.com
Let there be more for ICT infrastructure under 'Build Better More'

WI-FI ON EDSA: A phone shows free wi-fi connection on EDSA as the Department of Information and Communications Technology tests the service for its launch today. PLDT and Globe Telecom have
partnered with the DICT to provide free high-speed internet on EDSA. MICHAEL VARCAS

The Philippines slipped seven spots in the International Institute for Management Development’s (IMD) 2021 World Competitiveness Report. We placed 52nd out of 64 countries in 2021, down from 45th the previous year.

It was the steepest decline in Asia.

The Philippines’ ranking last year was our lowest in five years. The country lagged in the region, ranking 13th out of 14 Asia-Pacific economies. Singapore took the highest spot among Asian economies at fifth place, followed by Hong Kong (7th), Taiwan (8th), and China (16th).

At the 60th spot, Mongolia was the only Asia-Pacific economy behind the Philippines.

The Philippines retained its poor infrastructure ranking at 59th for a third straight year, despite the government’s supposedly massive “Build, Build, Build” (BBB) program. 
A clear illustration of the country’s digital infrastructure weakness is seen in our low number of telco towers (17,850) and high number of users per tower (4,090). Thailand has 52,483 towers and 991 users per tower. Vietnam has 90,000 towers and 756 users per tower.  The Philippine figures show high congestion leading to poor services.

Digital divide

Another IMD survey tells us, at least, that all is not lost. The areas on which we must improve have been identified. In World Digital Competitiveness, the Philippines moved up two notches, from 58th to 56th place among 63 countries assessed.
This ranking measures the capacity and readiness of 63 economies to adopt and explore digital technologies as a key driver for economic transformation in business, government, and the wider society, according to the IMD website.
Digital competitiveness is measured through Knowledge (the know-how necessary to discover, understand, and build new technologies), Technology (the overall context that enables the development of digital technologies) and Future Readiness (the level of country preparedness to exploit digital transformation).
We see proof of the gaping digital divide – unequal access to fast, reliable and affordable internet – in the Philippines everywhere, every day. This is especially true for our country as an archipelago, where interconnectivity between islands remains a pressing challenge. Despite increases in internet speed over recent years, only 63% of the country's adult population use the internet according to a Pulse Asia survey, while Hootsuite’s data report puts its estimate closer to 68%. This means that between 36 million and 41 million Filipinos do not use the internet.
Moreover, internet use is not distributed evenly, with the National Capital Region at 84% usage, the rest of Luzon at 65%, the Visayas with 62%, and Mindanao with 47%. Internet access is limited in rural areas in particular, and where they are available, services are relatively expensive and of weak quality.
Needless to say, the divide exacerbates socioeconomic inequalities.
Thus, while creating a robust digital infrastructure is paramount, the Philippines must be equally focused on fostering an environment where citizens all over the country can access technology, adapt to changes, and learn how to use digital tools meant for our collective economic advancement.

IT infra under Build Better More 

So what has been done about the Philippines’ infrastructure program in general, and ICT infrastructure concerns of the country in particular?
The Marcos administration is urged to learn from the lessons of the Duterte administration’s Build, Build, Build (BBB) program and foster ensure a consumer-friendly and transparent infrastructure program.
Policy experts made the call last October 5 in a virtual roundtable discussion organized by the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute (ADRi) in partnership with consumer advocacy group CitizenWatch Philippines.
“Infrastructure development is important for long-term growth. It provides jobs for Filipinos, ensures income security, allows for increased production and distribution, and stimulates spending that keeps the economy running strong for the long term.,” said Stratbase ADR Institute President Prof. Victor Andres Manhit.
Specifically, the need for digital transformation has become even more paramount. We must face the challenge of digital transformation if we ever hope to fully recover and fast in the post-pandemic period. For this, the country needed a solid IT infrastructure development program. 
University of the Philippines- Virata School of Business Professor Emeritus and Stratbase ADRi Trustee and Program Convenor, Dr. Epictetus Patalinghug delivered an assessment of the Duterte administration’s inefficient implementation of the Build Build Build program. IT infrastructure simply wasn’t a priority under the BBB.
Dr. Patalinghug also recommended prioritizing consumer-friendly projects and streamlining the approval process of major infrastructure projects. 
Meanwhile, Infrawatch convenor Atty. Terry Ridon called on the president to provide policy clarity on the issues of traffic, electricity, and digital infrastructure that have been affecting the general public.
To ensure a more inclusive infrastructure program, Atty. Ridon said advocacy groups or civil society formations should be present from planning, construction, to implementation of the government’s infrastructure program.
As a consumer rights advocate representing the advocacy group Bantay Konsyumer, Kalsada, at Kuryente (BK3), I was one of the commenters to Dr. Patalinghug’s presentation. It doesn’t take a genius, I said, to realize that in all these aspects and at all levels of program development and implementation, the involvement of consumers or private citizens could help in all phases of program development and implementation especially the involvement of the private sector including civil society or non-profit and voluntary organizations.
Particularly in light of the boom in electronic platforms under the pandemic and the growth of e-commerce in the country, there is very real consumer interest in seeing a strengthened Philippine IT infrastructure.
Build, Build, Build under the BBM administration has been rebranded as "Build Better More". I say the “more” should be on ICT infrastructure that will enable a nationwide and systemic digital transformation that would empower all sectors of our society to maximize the economic potential of digital technologies.

Louie C. Montemar is a fellow for education at the think tank Stratbase ADR Institute and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the PUP.

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