Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Recto: DICT is an app we need

(Editor?s note: Below is the sponsorship speech of Sen. Ralph Recto on the DICT bill delivered at the Senate floor on Monday, March 16.)

Sen. Ralph Recto during the most recent hearing on the DICT bill at the Senate
Sen. Ralph Recto during the most recent hearing on the DICT bill at the Senate

Mr. President, my dear colleagues:

This bill about broadband is not only being pushed by a broad band of groups, but has also benefited from their inputs which were gathered from many meetings.

I have to stress the crowdsourcing way by which it was written because it’s been joked about that what’s slower than Internet speed in this country, is Congress at work.

Well, it’s true that the way we pile up the provisions of a law can be likened to Tetris pieces slowly falling into place.

And sometimes, legislation, especially contentious ones, advances at a speed of 5 bps – or 5 bill pages per session…year.

But that is the way laws are made, not just here but anywhere, in deliberative fashion because the prose of legislation has far-reaching effects.

Bills can’t be crammed into 140-character tweets. And once signed into law, they don’t come installed with a backspace key that can autodelete poorly thought out provisions.

The way citizens can now monitor their representatives in Congress speaks volumes of how information and communications technology, or ICT, has given them access to the workings of government.

This is a far cry from how it was in the summer of 1987, when the Senate was about to reconvene after 15 years of forced vacation.

It was said that the number one agenda of the incoming senators then was not choosing the bills to be brought to the floor, but on how to bring telephone service to the Old Congress building.

After much haggling with the telephone monopoly at the time, they were given a handful of rotary sets–but each one had a “party line”.

Session journals were printed by mimeograph machines, after manual typewriters had punched the contents into stencils. Feedback came from the flood of telegrams. And the reply was picked up by a kartero.

When a citizen wanted to watch a session of the Senate, he had to phone his senator for a pass to the gallery. Today, he can watch our sessions–on his cellphone.

Our meetings are livestreamed on the Senate website, Pia tweets in between interpellation, Sonny Instagrams his attendance, and even the youngest member of the chamber, born in 1924, when Manila had less than 2,000 telephones, totes an iPad for research – and recreation.

And feedback? We get it from the likes in our FB posts, the sharing of our tweets, and from trolls who twit us on comment pages.

Today, broadband is the third utility, after water and power. And the most sought-after, if we go by the trend among restaurants to offer free wifi but not free bottled water. In some countries, Internet access is a human right, which is what the UN has declared.

There are more cellphone subscriptions than Filipinos today. 114 million accounts versus 105 million souls.

Overall, 4 in 10 have access to the Internet.

As of the latest count, the fixed and mobile broadband penetration rate is 24.1 percent, which means 25 million of us, or about two times the population of Greece and five and a half times the inhabitants of New Zealand, have access to it.

The number of Filipino Facebook users, I think, is past the 30 million mark. This should prompt Mark Zuckerberg to start greeting us Happy New Year in Tagalog.

We’re the texting capital of the world. In Metro Manila, millions of “WRU na” text queries are sent every day, which in turn are promptly replied with millions of “Traffic pa, W8 lang U”.

A Filipino may not have food in his stomach or money in his pocket, but he will always have a cellphone holstered somewhere, so when he boards a bus which advertises “Wi-Fi” onboard, he can blast politicians in social media as a way of letting off steam when he’s marooned in traffic.

But more than these, ICT is putting people to work, taxes in government coffers, money in the economy, and hope in our country’s future.

Income from outsourcing – the BPOs, the call centers, the back offices, medical transcription, game development, creative process outsourcing, to name a few – is projected to reach $25 billion or 8 percent of GDP next year.

In addition, it employs a million Filipinos, more if ancillary services are included. One in four jobs today are occupied by knowledge workers.

It is the third largest source of dollars – after electronics and OFW remittances.

And even in the case of OFWs, ICT – through Skype, FB and Viber – is the glue that keeps separated families together.

ICT is a proven growth driver.

Every 10 percentage points increase in broadband penetration is said to boost the GDP by 1 percent.

But to avail of these benefits, we need to address ICT infrastructure, ICT affordability, ICT usage, three benchmarks in which the Philippines ranks low.

To respond to the above challenges, we need a main server, so to speak, to spur ICT development, institutionalize e-government, and manage the country’s ICT environment and direction–and that, my friends, is the Department of Information and Communications Technology.

To criticisms that the creation of a Department of ICT is a symptom of that government disease to mutate agencies and multiply regulation, then let me assure you that such has no basis.

The need for a DICT is here and now. The horse is already here. It is the cart we’re building. The creation of this agency is driven by demand.

And Peter Wallace had described that demand this way: “ICT will dictate human lifestyles, drive industries and shape society” in the years to come.

The question is, are we ready? Yes, with this bill we will be.

Mr. President:

This bill sets as national policies the following:

To make ICT an instrument of good governance and global competitiveness;

To ensure universal access to quality, affordable, reliable ICT service, or in simple consumer language, service without dropped calls, dead spots, disappearing signal and slooooow Internet connectivity;

To promote the development, and the widespread use of emerging ICT and the convergence of ICT and ICT-enabled facilities;

To steer ICT services to areas where no telco has gone before;

To craft policies that will promote a broad, market-led development of the ICT and ICT-enabled services, and create a level playing field;

To spur the development of local ICT content as well as ICT start-ups–for who knows, maybe the next Bill Gates is in one of the garages out there;

To make ICT a job generator;

To tap ICT to make our people smarter, healthier, safer in their communities, proud of their national identity, appreciative of their culture; and aware of their civic duties;

To promote digital literacy, so that digital aliens and migrants like me in my age bracket can engage the WTF – Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook – generation;

To empower, through ICT, the disadvantaged segments of the population;

To ensure our right to privacy because the right to be heard and seen includes the right to be hidden and forgotten;

To secure our ICT infrastructure, because we live in an era when terrorists don’t have to blast bank doors to do mayhem; but simply unleash a virus that could shred or suck out financial data.

To boost our nation’s defense against cyberattacks because an enemy with a missile is as dangerous as one with malware;

The proposed department will be the primary policy, planning, coordinating, implementing agency on ICT. It will plan, develop, and promote the national ICT agenda.

It shall have the following powers and functions, clustered around four key areas.

First is policy and planning.

It will formulate, recommend and implement national policies, plans, and programs which will promote the development and use of ICT.

It shall partner with DepEd, CHED and TESDA in mainstreaming ICT in schools and manpower development so our human resources are ICT-competent.

It shall link all government ICT resources and networks under one integrated framework so government can optimize its ICT assets.

Second is improvement of public access.

It shall prescribe the rules and recommend the incentives to bring ICT infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas.

It shall establish a free Internet service, available in public offices and areas, using cost-effective technology, which it may offer in partnership with private service providers.

Third is resource-sharing and capacity-building.

It will harmonize national ICT initiatives so that knowledge is transferred, resources are shared, data bases are built and agency networks are linked together.

Also falling under this category is the protection of government ICT infrastructures and designs.

The DICT will also render technical expertise to government agencies, not only in the setting of standards, but in the enforcement of regulatory guidelines as well.

It will likewise support ICT research, especially the ones done by DOST.

It shall assist in developing systems that can quickly disseminate disaster information.

Because the government needs an ICT corps, it shall prescribe personnel qualifications, training and career advancement programs.

Fourth is consumer protection and industry development.

Stripped of jargon, this section means that DICT will protect consumers against lousy service, and ensure business users’ right to privacy.

It shall also encourage the incubation of ICT firms, promote investment opportunities in the ICT sector. In this regard, it shall advise in the drawing up of concepts and contracts on PPP projects in the ICT sector.

It shall strike local and international partnerships to speed up industry growth and boost the competitiveness of Philippine ICT firms and talent.

So the above is the operating system of the DICT. Let me now go to the hardware.

For efficiency and economy, the DICT will be created by merging existing ICT-related agencies.

“Unli” is good for calls and internet use, but when it comes to the ICT authority, there must be one and only.

To be abolished, and their powers and functions, funds and appropriations, manpower and assets, transferred to DICT, are:

Information and Communications Technology Office (ICTO)

National Computer Center (NCC)

National Computer Institute (NCI)

Telecommunications Office (TELOF)

National Telecommunications Training Institute (NTTI)

All units of the DOTC with functions and responsibilities dealing with communications will be folded into the new department.

The rest of the DOTC offices shall stay with the DOTC, which shall then be known as the Department of Transportation.

This will allow the downsized Transportation department to focus on fixing our transportation mess.

It will now have the undivided attention and the narrowed mandate to ensure that trains run on time, run on new tracks, and not run off them; that the shipping industry is buoyant and ships, afloat, literally; that jeeps don’t cut trips, buses don’t cut lives short, and transport officials don’t take a cut.

The following will be attached to the DICT, for policy and program coordination only. They shall continue to operate pursuant to their charters:

National Telecommunications Commission;

National Privacy Commission; and

Cybercrime Investigation and Coordination Center or CICC.

All work related to cybersecurity including the formulation of the National Cybersecurity Plan and the formation of a National Computer Emergency Response Team – our IT Special Action Forces – are transferred to the DICT.

Let me assure you that these mergers won’t birth a huge bureaucracy nor burn a deep hole in the taxpayer’s pocket. It will have the same, if not smaller, budgetary footprint, as what the affected agencies together have.

We’re limiting the number of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. Creation of regional offices is optional, not mandatory.

In creating new positions, we will adopt the scrap-and-build approach, in which, for example, a few unfilled lower positions can be reconstituted into one with a higher pay grade.

The idea is to create a small but smart workforce. The army of casuals in ICTO, once they hurdle personnel standards, will be regularized.

All benefits presently enjoyed by affected employees will be retained, including entitlements under the Magna Carta for Science and Technology Workers.

If you need further proof that this bill will be spending-neutral, kindly read Section 21. Not a single new centavo will be appropriated in starting up DICT.

The initial amount needed to get it up and running shall be taken from the current budget of the offices to be abolished, like ICTO.

The DICT shall be headed by a secretary. He or she must have a minimum 7 years of work experience in ICT. By spelling these out, we’re making sure the person will be hired based on competence, not connections.

While the DICT secretary will have a workforce below him, he will have sectoral and industry task forces, technical advisory bodies by his side.

This bill enshrines stakeholder participation in the department. That agency is required to have a social network.

Mr. President:

We are now living in an electronic republic, where views of the sovereign are advocated online, and services must be rendered to them on the same platform.

A government which spends P2.5 trillion a year needs ICT to get more bang out of the buck, and to prevent bribes from being squeezed out of the last peso.

Permits, licenses, land titles should now be electronically-applied for, processed and issued. Let us leave to the MRT the exclusive franchise of organizing long lines.

If there will be an FOI, then there must be a DICT to help implement the law, which will make it easier for the people to get information and service from government offices and officials.

We have to harness ICT for us to be catapulted forward in an age when the race among nations for jobs and investments favors the one with the best ICT infrastructure.

Countries that have established a Cabinet-level ICT agency have ranked high on ICT scorecards–in government efficiency, in broadband penetration, in number of schools wired, and on the impact of ICT on basic services delivered, among others.

We therefore need need an agency which can pull us up from our low global ICT standing.

Out of 148 countries, we rank 71 in using ICT for government efficiency; 78 in network readiness, 67 in government online service, and 74 in schools with Internet.

Many of the problems we confront today have ICT solutions which can ease the pain they cause or make them totally go away.

If roads are clogged with traffic, then the information highway provides a detour. That way energy is saved, pollution reduced, and mass sanity is preserved.

Kung ma-traffic, mag-telecommute.

Kung malayo ang ospital, ang doktor ay napapalapit sa pamamagitan ng tele-medicine.

Kung malayo ang paaralan, may distance learning na sa computer pinapadaan.

Kahit malayo ang pamilihan, sa ICT malalaman kung saan magandang bumili o magbenta, kung saan ang sulit ang kita at ‘ayos dito’ ang presyo.

By injecting ICT into the production of goods or value chains, costs go down, sales go up, markets expand, and innovation is encouraged.

Our capacity to create jobs, grow our economy, train skilled people, and feed our country will rest on our ability to expand our ICT capability.

This bill is about future-proofing our country. It is our app for tomorrow.

We need to create a technology-literate workforce. The division today is no longer between the Haves and the Have-Nots alone, but also between the Knows and the Don’t Knows. And it is the Don’t Knows who end up becoming the Have-Nots.

Mr. President:

We should pass this, not because chambers of commerce are hectoring us to do so, or because there is a loud constituency in social media hollering shout outs that we should act on it, or that the IT professionals want it.

Actually, the constituency who will benefit from the bill is the whole country itself.

From the homemaker who Skypes with her OFW husband; to the college student who streams a TedTalk video on Youtube; to the motorist who has to Waze himself out of traffic jams; to the small factory owner who has to teleconference with his customers abroad.

From the mayor who has to rely on Project NOAH warnings during typhoons; to the entrepreneur who has to do e-banking; to the taxpayer who must rely on a virtual map in navigating the labyrinth of bureaucracy; to the call center jock who guides an old lady in freezing Minnesota on how to restart her heater – from his cubicle in tropical Ortigas.

From the jobseeker who trawls “help wanted” ads online; to the backpacker on the hunt for cheap airline tickets; to the BPO manager who must remain competitive in a cutthroat environment; to the fish broker who has to track his tuna shipment online.

Yes, even to the leader of an intrepid group of men who has to fire a staccato of “med evac, fire support” text messages.

And, by the way, for it is true, if there’s one graphic example of the big role of ICT in society, it was Mamasapano.

When we started piecing together the narrative of the debacle, the first things we summoned were the SMS records of those involved so we can get the big picture.

And what we also discovered is that our brave men, their bullets gone but not the fight in them, spent their last moments as ICT users, plotting their location in their GPS, asking for “load”, so they can reiterate their request for help which never came, so they can text their family of their love which will never die.

Mr. President:

When it comes to DICT, it is YOLO time. ‘You Only Legislate Once’ this kind of idea. This is an opportunity we should not pass, nor forfeit again.

Previous bills creating the DICT had hurdled crucial phases of legislation in the past, like being passed by the House and the Senate, only to flounder in the last minute for lack of time.

This time, let us give it the final push. If we can bring this to the President’s table by June, then we are time-on-target.

Hashtag L-O-L. Let’s Okay this Law.


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