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Opinion

Improved

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

In the new economy we anticipate after this pandemic exhausts itself, digital communications will play a central role. All production processes will be redefined by the advantages of digitalization.

The country’s digital backbone used to be among the weakest among emerging economies. Over the past year, however, as we battled the virus, we also improved our digital infrastructure.

We are not the best by any measure. But we are certainly not the worst.

In its latest report, Ookla (the global reference for mobile and broadband network intelligence) ranks the Philippines 65th out of 180 countries for fixed broadband speeds and 77th out of 137 countries in mobile.

That might still appear middling. But consider where we were just months ago. Last November, the Philippines ranked 103rd for fixed broadband and 110th for mobile globally. We have taken a major leap in less than a year.

Out of 50 Asian countries, the Philippines’ internet speed is now placed at 17th for fixed broadband and 23rd for mobile. In the 46 countries of the Asia-Pacific, the Philippines now ranks 14th for fixed broadband and 12th for mobile. Among the 10 countries of the ASEAN, we now rank 5th in both fixed broadband and mobile.

According to Ookla, the country’s fixed broadband download speed improved by 642.50 percent since the Duterte administration took over in July 2016. Over the same period, mobile speed improved by 329.70 percent. We will have to call the improvement spectacular.

This great leap forward is explained by a combination of policy reforms and administrative initiatives pursued by the Duterte administration.

The most visible of these is President Duterte’s determination to break the duopoly in telecommunications by encouraging the entry of a third major player. DITO, the third player, has commenced commercial operations.

By way of a joint memorandum circular, the DITC, the DILG, the ARTA and other agencies helped fast-track the telco infrastructure rollout. The telcos welcomed the DPWH initiative to allow them a portion of government’s right-of-way to ensure internet connectivity throughout the archipelago.

President Duterte ordered the local governments to act expeditiously on the permits required to roll out telco infrastructure. The NTC reports that in 2019, 1,636 permits were issued by LGUs. In 2020, 6,451 permits were issued. In the first four months of 2021, 2,789 permits were granted.

In 2019, telcos built a total of 1,746 towers. In 2020, 4,337 towers were built, representing a 148 percent increase. In the first trimester of 2021, 1,672 more towers were built.

In 2019, we only had 384,341 cable-kilometers of fiber network. In 2020, we increased this to 726,705. By April 2021, this increased further to 846,323.

Reflecting the improved communications infrastructure, internet usage jumped by 500 percent during the period of the pandemic. In the first trimester of this year, nearly 100 percent of taxpayers paid online.

The rapid improvement of our digital infrastructure should rank among the Duterte administration’s greatest achievements.

Donor-driven

Our legislators were rightfully scandalized to find out that 370 respirators donated by the Lucio Tan group last year remained trapped in the DOH warehouses. Rep. Rufus Rodriguez described this situation as “criminal negligence.”

The reason for not disseminating the urgently needed equipment, it turns out, is Civil Service Commission Joint Memorandum Circular No. 2010-01. The memorandum was initiated by the DOH and the FDA and forbids government offices from interacting with the tobacco industry. The Tan group manufactures cigarettes. Other donations from tobacco-related enterprises to help government fight the pandemic were turned away because of this policy.

The joint memo is supposedly based on the WHO’s Framework Convention for Tobacco Control. Article 5.3 of that convention merely seeks to preserve the integrity of the legislative process and does not intend to exclude the tobacco industry from beneficial interaction with government agencies. Clearly, the joint memo is overkill.

With the same considerations, zealots in the DOH and the FDA last year pushed hard to exclude the tobacco industry from participating in the procurement of vaccines for our people. Although the tobacco industry is heavily regulated in this country, it is a legitimate one. The stance of the anti-tobacco zealots at the DOH and the FDA is tantamount to excommunication that prevents the tobacco enterprises from helping the community.

A disappointed Rep. Jericho Nograles points out that government’s priority ought to be “to save lives, not push for an advocacy that rejects any help to save lives.” Rep. Sharon Garin describes the attitude of the DOH and the FDA as “distorted” for refusing donations of medical equipment and PPEs.

It turns out the zealotry of the DOH and the FDA is fueled by donations from tobacco control advocates such as the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The funding was given the DOH and the FDA to get government to enact stricter tobacco policies. Nowhere was it stated that the advocacy donations were intended to prevent the tobacco-related enterprises from offering to help the community, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

The legislators point out that there is no current legislation that supports the approach taken by the joint memorandum alienating or excluding the tobacco industry from interactions with government agencies. The memo very likely violates the Equal Protection Clause in the Constitution by creating an unreasonable distinction between the tobacco industry and other industries with interest in public health.

The House committee concluded that the joint memo is “unreasonable, superfluous, unnecessary and is in violation of the industry’s right to substantive due process.” Those who rejected help from the enterprises could be liable for unethical behavior.

DIGITAL OOKLA
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