"We can’t afford the handicap of a lagging telecommunications infrastructure."
As a consumer advocate monitoring the developing interplay of government and private efforts for our survival and revival, the undeniable lifesaver that has become essential for our economic continuity is our systemic shift to digital technologies. Observing the daily challenges that have befallen Filipino consumers since the lockdowns started nearly a year ago, I came up with this short list of three must have technologies we need to live through and rebound from this deep economic depression.
The most ubiquitous of all is cellphones. Data from the Digital 2020 report by Hootsuite pegs the number of mobile connections in the Philippines at 173.2 million, equivalent to 159 percent of the population. Mobile phones have evolved from a device purely for analog voice calls to a multi-tasking wonder functioning like a desktop computer and a digital photo/video camera. It is our default device for making calls, sending messages, making online purchases, doing bank transactions, paying bills, making telemedicine consultations, holding online meetings, attending webinars, and of course, getting our entertainment fix.
These functionalities connect to my second pick, which is actually the most critical. This is the development of a national digital infrastructure capable of delivering world-class broadband speeds so that every user can harness the full productivity of cloud-based technologies.
It is encouraging to hear that ongoing investments of the dominant telco companies Globe Telecom and Smart Communications have been named by the World Bank as among the top ten. To cope with the surging demand for fast and uninterrupted connectivity, between them, 2021 spending will be about P162 billion.
According to Globe President and CEO Ernest Cu, a record amount of investments on capex will upgrade their network with more cell sites, accelerate fiber rollouts to homes, and expand high speed 5G areas.
Since mobility restrictions were imposed last year, telcos observed a 500-percent spike in data-usage. Demand will steadily grow as more economic activities are allowed, thus the huge investments primarily driven by the private telcos will not be enough.
Just harping for faster broadband will not speed-up the building of the 50,000 telecommunications towers needed to meet current demand. We need the national government to seriously invest, and I mean seriously—not the sorely inadequate P1.5 billion for the all-critical National Broadband Plan (NBP) that the Department of Information and Communications Technology was planning to implement at a P15-billion budget. Even more frustrating is the four-year-old agreement with the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) to use the existing fiber optic capacity installed within the country’s power transmission backbone for the NBP. Well, this isn’t happening in this administration.
No wonder we are lagging behind our ASEAN neighbors in terms of government investments for telco infrastructure. Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam are aggressively spending US$233 million, US$162 billion, US$343, US$820 million, respectively to rush their strategic telecommunications projects. The big economies like China, Japan, and South Korea, countries that are already enjoying high broadband speeds, are spending at the hundreds of billions level.
Yes, we need enough resources to deal with COVID-19 to test, trace, treat, and to achieve herd immunity through vaccination. Leveraging on the country’s credit rating for long-term loans to finance these interventions is indeed necessary. The latest reports say that COVID-19 loans have reached P641 Billion that taxpayers will be paying until 2049. It’s hard to understand why the P15 billion proposed by the DICT to light up the NGCP’s fiber backbone could not be rationalized as a strategic infrastructure asset that will boost economic recovery and reap long-term returns on investments because of the productivity boost to all industries.
Third, but just as significant, is the national ID or PhilSys. I want to emphasize that this is not just another ID for valid proof of identity. It is a digital platform to streamline services for all citizens and resident aliens.
PhilSys is a game-changing digital platform that will benefit all sectors and integral to an emerging digital economy. A well implemented PhilSys that deploys biometrics won’t even need an ID card. Just scan away and your identity is confirmed to fulfill all kinds of transactions. This technology will also make online voting viable and secure. Law enforcement will also be strengthened, and delivery of public services will be fast and painless. But then the pandemic is causing further delays.
We must have the digital infrastructure to deliver the broadband speeds to run all the cloud-based services we need. Just as we can’t afford delaying deployment of safe and effective vaccines, we can’t afford the handicap of a lagging telecommunications infrastructure. If this administration would just rely on private enterprise to build the digital network we need, then at least it must give the telco industry the regulatory space it needs to unleash its natural drive for fast development.