DIGITAL DIVIDE: UNIVERSAL INTERNET ACCESS IN THE PHILIPPINES


(STAR) FILIPINO WORLD VIEW By Roberto R. Romulo – Do the poor need Internet access? Should providing them Internet access (also known as universal Internet access) be a priority of government?”

In a speech in October 1999 at TELCOM 99 in Geneva, then UN Secretary General Kofi Anan warned of the danger of excluding the poor from the information revolution. He said, “People lack many things: jobs, shelter, food, education, health care and drinkable water. Today, being cut off from basic telecommunications services is a hardship almost as acute as these other deprivations, and may indeed reduce the chances of finding remedies to them.”

So the answer is an unqualified “yes”. For instance, take education. It is impossible for our public school system to cope with the demands of educating the millions of children with enough classrooms and qualified teachers. If one argues that the most effective manner of providing them this education is the Internet, then the urgency is definitely established. It becomes all the more imperative with our population now at 88 million. Internet is the only solution which can address such massive delivery of education to all our remote barangays.

Far from a luxury, access to information has become increasingly essential for the effective delivery of services by professionals like teachers and health care professionals, as well as for small businesses seeking to expand their markets worldwide.

The close relationship between development and information as well as with economic productivity and good governance, led APEC to target providing Internet to all communities in the Asia Pacific by 2010.

With less than two years to the deadline, how close are we in terms of achieving the target Internet access for all Filipinos? Studies indicate that there are two imperatives to achieving these goals.

Redirection of government focus

The first is for government to redirect its focus from the infrastructure that delivers the information to the information itself. Current policies and programs are focused on building broadband networks and the deployment of public Internet centers much like public telephone booths. Experience around the globe indicates that the take up and utilization of all these are extremely low — too low that it has resulted in the centers becoming unsustainable. This policy is based on a “build it and they will come” philosophy. But studies abroad indicate that even if access is available, people still do not use these centers unless there are relevant and meaningful reasons for them to use the Internet.

One big reason why people will use these centers is if public services – from education to agricultural extension to health care to transactions like licenses and permits — can be accessed or delivered to them via the Internet. When the government focuses on putting public services and information online, it will be creating a demand among citizens for more Internet access centers around the country. The delivery of government services using the Internet can be the most significant source of demand for broadband capacities and can be likened to text messaging which has grown the user base of cell phones to almost half our population.

Focusing on computerizing delivery of government services could also be one of the long term solutions to addressing corruption in government, where one root cause is the lack of transparency in government transactions – whether selling to government agencies or applying for licenses and permits. If government and its services can be accessed through the internet in people’s homes or internet cafes, as is mandated by the E-Commerce Act, the opportunity to mulct money from citizens to get service from government would be lessened.

Need for a coherent ICT policy

The second important issue is coherence in ICT development policy making and implementation, and more specifically the issue of which government agency is in charge of ensuring universal Internet access. As I have also pointed out in previous columns, we have moved from a situation where one agency (CICT) is in charge of all ICT initiatives to a situation where it is unclear who is in charge (CICT or DOTC?). The lack of a clear leader becomes a bigger problem when a significant number of government agencies are implementing information systems without any coordination leading to a situation where systems cannot even connect to each other. There now exists several government telecommunications networks such as DOST’s Preginet, Office of the Press Secretary’s French Protocol network and TELOF’s NTP-2 and NTP-3. The aborted NBN/ZTE Network would have added to this mix but would have probably not seen the light of day had there been centralized coordination.

The creation of a Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) was a clear policy set by this administration. The 2001 State of the Nation Address of President Arroyo stated very clearly the need for focus and coordination. We are now in year 2008 and the bill creating it is still gathering cobwebs in both houses. In session after session of our legislature, the Executive Branch has never certified the bill as urgent. Even the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) countries in ASEAN have stepped up to this, recognizing the urgency of using ICT for national development. Much to the disappointment of the private sector, our government (including the legislature) has yet to deliver.

This lack of coherence in policymaking – in contrast with other countries – has become so glaring in our representation to intergovernmental organizations like ASEAN. The ASEAN Telecommunications and IT Ministers (ASEAN TELMIN) meeting are represented by Ministers of ICT from our ASEAN neighbors, underscoring the importance they place on a coordinated approach to ICT development. The Philippines was previously represented by the Chairman of CICT which while not quite at ministerial level and did not have teeth at least insured that he knew what he was talking about. This was until the President reversed strategies in midstream for unexplained reasons (industry sources even claim that this was due to the reluctance of CICT “to play ball” with the NBM/ZTE project) and transferred Telecommunications back to DOTC through an Executive Order. During the last ministerial meeting, the Philippines was represented by a mere assistant secretary from the DOTC, an indication of the level of interest and priority the Secretary of the DOTC gives to ICT development. On the other hand, Singapore and Malaysia both recognized as leaders in ICT development not only in ASEAN but globally, were represented by their Ministers solely responsible for ICT. For goodness sakes, transportation is so big and important it also requires a separate Ministry or Department!

We have temporized too long on this issue. We need to turn things around. It begins with changing our policy orientation and requires strengthening the government agency that will lead the charge. The stakes are high. Achieving universal Internet access is not only good social policy but also good economic policy.

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