Saturday, February 24, 2024

DIGITAL INFLUENCER | Digital access to rural PH: Connecting every island

The digital divide in the Philippines, characterized by a gap in digital access and capabilities, poses a significant challenge affecting the country’s socio-economic growth and inclusivity.

The report “An Infrastructure-Based Approach to Advance Digital Equity in South-East Asia” by EdgePoint Infrastructure sheds light on this divide, revealing that a significant portion of the population, particularly in rural areas, remains unconnected.

Connecting the unconnected

In the Philippines, many in the rural population remain unconnected due to residing in remote areas. These groups often face barriers such as a lack of 4G coverage and comprehensive connectivity infrastructure. As of 2022, 5% of the Philippines’ population lacked 4G coverage, impeding their access to the Internet and its socio-economic benefits.

The majority of these unconnected areas are likely in geographically isolated and disadvantaged regions of the country, receiving 3 to 5 Mbps Internet connectivity. In contrast, areas with 4G and above typically achieve around 30 Mbps minimum.

Google’s Philippines e-Conomy report highlights the rapid growth of the digital economy in the Philippines, with an increasing number of users accessing the Internet for various services. However, it also points out that growth is uneven, with urban areas enjoying better connectivity and digital services compared to rural regions.

This observation was also reinforced by We Are Social’s Digital 2023 report, citing a significant increase in Internet users but also underscoring quality issues like slow Internet speeds and intermittent connectivity, particularly in less urbanized areas.

According to Suresh Sidhu, CEO and Founder of EdgePoint Infrastructure, “Improved coverage can lead to increased Internet adoption, higher data traffic, and subsequently, economic benefits. A 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration could result in a GDP increase of 0.8-2%.” However, achieving these benefits requires consistent quality improvement and expansion of services, especially in underserved areas.

Free Internet access in public places

The “Free Internet Access in Public Places Act” (Republic Act 10929) was enacted in August 2017. It aligns well with the need to bridge the digital divide by providing free Internet access in public places, addressing one of the fundamental challenges: connectivity availability. The program covers various public places including government offices, educational institutions, public hospitals, parks, libraries, transportation terminals, and more.

However, implementation challenges such as underutilization of funds, supplier debts, and slow roll-out in public schools have been flagged by the Commission on Audit and several legislators.

Reports suggest that less than 2% of public schools have benefited from this initiative so far. This highlights the need for not just access but also reliable and high-speed Internet, and better program management.

“Broadband ng Masa” is a program to enhance Wi-Fi connectivity across the Philippines, potentially including the provision of free or highly subsidized Internet access. This program is part of the effort to boost Wi-Fi connectivity in the Philippines, including significant infrastructure projects like the subsea cable system. It aims to enhance both the affordability and availability of Internet access, particularly in underserved areas.

For 2024, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) will be allotting P2.5 billion for this program. In a recent CNN interview, the agency disclosed its target to construct 110,000 free Wi-Fi sites by the end of 2026 or mid-2027, aiming to establish 8,000 free Wi-Fi sites in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas in the current year, and 15,000 barangays the following year.

While the law is on track in terms of its foundational objectives, its implementation requires ongoing evaluation and adaptation to ensure it effectively addresses the nuances of the digital divide in the Philippines as highlighted in the various reports.

National Broadband Plan (NBP)

The NBP is a strategic framework by the DICT, aiming for nationwide broadband connectivity by 2026. It focuses on building robust infrastructure to improve Internet speed, reliability, and affordability.

Phase 1 of the NBP, which is 73% complete, involves activating 28 nodes of the national fiber backbone in 12 provinces. As of August 2023, the DICT has provided high-speed broadband connections to 981 government offices in 13 provinces. The National Fiber Backbone has a target to finish from North Luzon to Mindanao by 2026.

Even in areas with Internet access, issues of speed and reliability are prominent. According to the 2023 OpenSignal report, the Philippines still faces challenges in providing consistent and high-speed Internet, particularly in less urbanized regions.

According to the EdgePoint report, there has been progress in infrastructure development, with an increased deployment of fiber optics and wireless technologies. Adoption of emerging technologies such as 5G and advanced satellite communications can further enhance Internet quality and accessibility.

However, challenges persist, particularly in policy and regulatory reforms, the establishment of a Universal Service Fund, and the optimization of spectrum utilization.

Leveraging public-private partnerships can bring additional expertise and funding from the private sector, complementing government initiatives. These partnerships are essential for resource-intensive projects like the National Broadband Plan.

Some of the partnerships reported so far are with Facebook or Meta Platforms Inc. for the Luzon Bypass Infrastructure Project, the United Nations Development Program for capacity building and technical assistance, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank for technical expertise and guidance, telecommunication companies like PLDT, Globe, and local Internet service providers for expanding broadband coverage and addressing Internet quality issues. There are technology providers for hardware, software, and know-how on broadband deployment.

According to the Department of Budget and Management report on digitalization budgets for 2024, the DICT is allotting 1.5 billion pesos for NBP in 2024 to improve Internet speed and allow affordability throughout the country.

Philippine Development Plan

The Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2023-2028 further outlines strategies to improve Internet infrastructure and address the digital divide. It emphasizes the need for robust and expansive Internet infrastructure, targeting improvements in Internet speed, reliability, and affordability.

It advocates for streamlined regulatory processes to facilitate faster deployment of Internet services and effective implementation of connectivity-related laws. This includes streamlining permit processes and encouraging competition in the telecommunications sector.

The DICT’s initiative to establish a resiliency route is a strategic effort to strengthen the country’s digital infrastructure. This move is particularly significant in addressing the digital divide by enhancing the robustness and reliability of Internet connectivity, especially in a nation prone to natural disasters like typhoons and earthquakes.

Regular assessment & community involvement

If you live in a metropolis enjoying reasonable Internet access for work or study, the digital divide subject may seem irrelevant.

According to Economist Impact, the Philippines ranks relatively high in infrastructure resilience, with 80% of the population covered by 4G. Statista reported, that as of April 2023, 105 cities in the Philippines have 5G network coverage.

However, when there are outages and when you get to visit remote areas, connectivity challenges can be a pain, especially when you need to be connected to get things done.

To achieve inclusive growth, a sustained commitment to reducing the digital divide is essential. As Sidhu points out, “Empowering underserved populations with digital connectivity is crucial for national development.”

The EdgePoint report suggests specific policy themes for advancing digital equity in the Philippines. These include leveraging government financing support as a catalyst for greater private investment in rural connectivity.

It also suggests regular assessment of the impact and effectiveness of various initiatives is critical. This approach allows for the identification of gaps and the adjustment of strategies to better address the digital divide.

Involving local communities in the planning and implementation of connectivity projects ensures that the solutions provided are tailored to meet specific needs. Increasing digital literacy and awareness about the benefits of Internet access can stimulate demand and encourage wider adoption.

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