Can your presidential bet provide #InternetForAll?

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On May 6, 2016
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By John Alliage Morales (Last of Three Parts)

Stack produced a three-part series on the presidential candidates’ science and technology agenda. Part 1 talks about their R&D spending targets. Part 2 dives into the role of talent and human capital in R&D. Part 3 looks into the role of digital technology as a tool for inclusive development. You may download the unedited statements of the candidates at the end of this article.

 

In many parts of the archipelago, digital technologies have spread rapidly in a short period of time.

Sixteen years ago, there were 6.4 million mobile phones. Now, there are more mobile phones than the population.

Fixed broadband totaled 10,000 in 2001. A decade and three years later, the count was 23.2 million.

The number of internet users has grown incredibly by 25 times from 1.5 million in 2000 to 39.7 million in 2014.

In this period of rapid diffusion, these technologies have opened up so many opportunities. They’ve enabled institutions to be accountable. And for a lot of people, they’ve made life convenient.

But across the archipelago, the spread is uneven.

Which is why Rodrigo Duterte, Grace Poe, Mar Roxas, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago—while they have clear differences on many issues—agree that increasing access to the internet is their primordial policy concern.

And in promising to widen access, they must also commit themselves to doing the equally important and challenging task of bringing vital government services closer to those who need the most.

[The campaign team of Jejomar Binay did not respond to our repeated requests for a written interview.]

Whoever wins the election, the next president should be able to match the amount of his or her proposed investment in digital technologies with the capacity of the bureaucracy to scale up e-government services.

Digital Technologies-01

What is your candidate’s digital agenda?

Poe, Roxas, and Santiago proposed to partner with the private sector to make sure everyone regardless of geography and status gets connected to the internet.

Duterte’s draft two-page agenda doesn’t expound in depth his proposals, but if elected president, he would pour funding in five strategic projects, one of which is providing “faster and cheaper internet.”

How he would do this is still unclear, as his agenda doesn’t provide enough details.

We have Asia’s lowest internet, yet our archipelago needs it to bridge gaps and build networks.” – Rodrigo Duterte

If she becomes the president, Santiago would make access her priority.

The centerpiece of her agenda is the creation of ICT hubs. These hubs, running on reliable internet, houses computers and a digital media library. Her administration, together with the private sector, would build these hubs in rural areas.

“Through these ‘smart villages,’ poor women and mothers will learn how to access health information for themselves and their families; children can complement the classroom experience; and men, especially those involved in agriculture, can make better informed farm decisions,” she said. 

We must widen access to digital technology before we can dream of using it to impact the Philippine poverty situation.” – Miriam Defensor-Santiago

She would also give out grants to state-run schools so they can go online.

“Distance learning programs have high impact potential, as they can be offered to a wide number of students at minimal cost,” she said. “We will prioritize technical-vocational institutions to equip the poor with life skills.”

For Grace Poe, digital technology is a powerful enabling tool that promotes good governance, widens public participation, and improves service delivery.

Access to the internet by every citizen is key to allowing them access to government services, educational programs, jobs, business opportunities, and vital information.” – Grace Poe

Poe would build local cyberhubs even in far-flung villages.

Like Santiago, she would also create an online education platform that provides distance learning courses.

She also sees the importance of digital technology in helping local farmers. She would provide funding to agricultural universities to develop practical applications and teach farmers best practices.

In the Philippines and elsewhere, smallholder farmers lack access to data and information. As a result, they are at a disadvantage in negotiating the price of their produce. Poe would like to address this. She would put up a web platform, which provides data on pricing, production, and weather information, among other data sets.

She would support online Filipino workers by providing quality connectivity and bridging programs under TESDA.

This proposal reflects the growing importance of online outsourcing on many Filipino workers. One study showed that hourly earnings in oDesk are on average 14 times higher than minimum wages in developing countries. Around 1.3 million Filipinos are doing freelance work on Elance-oDesk.

The internet has also ushered in a new era of citizen empowerment. Poe recognized this power of technology, so she would set up online-based mechanisms that ensure citizens can participate in policy making.

Roxas, on the other hand, noted: “Internet, TV, and cellular communications—when used to its maximum potential—can lead economic growth in rural areas.”

He would continue several projects started out by the Aquino Administration. First, he would expand the universal WiFi program in which seven provinces will go online this year.

Roxas also sees the vast opportunities presented by the country’s digital switchover. “With the coming of digital TV, we free up a lot of the UHF/VHF bandwidth, which can be used for many applications such as local broadcasting and network communications,” Roxas said.

“Lastly, together with our telecommunication companies, wireless communications should be brought to the farthest barangays and islands,” Roxas said. 

With all these, imagine the impact to a rural barangay of the connectivity and access to all information that we take for granted in urban areas.” – Mar Roxas

He identified the technology that could make this happen. He said the University of the Philippines is currently working on village-based cell sites that use satellite uplink. This technology converts all forms of communications such as text and voice calls to digital information.

Bringing the disconnected to the digital economy

There’s a lot at stake in making digital technologies accessible to all—and ultimately making the internet universal.

Evidence, after all, suggests that an increase in broadband penetration boosts economic growth. Studies done in South Africa, Peru, Uruguay, and United States also show that digital technologies affect employment and worker’s earnings.

But the challenge to bring everyone to the digital age is daunting, because right now, about half of the population remains offline.

This is important to consider, because the decision of which household to prioritize will boil down to a question of policy consideration: cost effectiveness or greater impact.

In the fight to provide Internet for All, poor rural towns have more to gain than rich cities, but they also have more to lose when the divide is left unaddressed.

In 2012, there were 218 towns where poverty incidence ranged between 50% and 84%. In these towns with more than a million households combined, only around 8,000 could access the internet at home and about 42,500 got their connections elsewhere in 2010, according to population census data. 

Increasing access to these households will undoubtedly be costly, requiring huge investment in infrastructure, training, and education. But it’s a decision that has far-reaching impact on the poorest segment of the population.

On the other hand, towns with the lesser poor—say, those with 10% to 20% poverty incidence—are easier to reach, because they are better connected to growth centers and bustling commercial cities.  

Reaching households without internet connection in these areas will certainly be more cost effective, but less impactful on a national scale.

The challenge now for the next president is balancing these two competing factors. He or she must roll out cost-effective programs that can show greater impact for most poor households—and he or she must also tailor fit these programs to particular geographies.

Nonetheless, it’s a challenge that’s worth taking by the government. As what the World Bank has noted, public investment in digital technologies is at times necessary and justifiable by the larger social returns.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel because the next president can build upon existing programs, which have been proven to bridge the digital gap. He or she can scale up the use of publicly shared internet facilities, expand free WiFi hotspots, and connect more public schools to the internet.

But what the next president should reform is in the way the agencies tasked to oversee these programs perform their job. For these programs to succeed, the president should make these agencies better planners, better buyers of goods and services, and above all, better spenders.

Build shared facilities in rural villages

Publicly shared internet facilities can be built in rural villages where there are few households with access to the internet through wired or wireless devices.

Poe and Santiago already proposed to build cyberhubs in rural areas. Roxas similarly plans to invest in shared infrastructure with fast internet connection. Their proposals can build on the success of the Philippine Community eCenters.

A decade ago, the government and NGOs worked together to put up Community eCenters nationwide. The plan then was to build internet hubs in all towns and cities. The program had some success. In 2011, about 1,416 eCenters were established, but the program only covered 45% of all municipalities and cities.

The initiative was expanded over the last five years, with the goal of bringing CeCs to all 41,000 barangays.

But first, the Information and Communication Technology Office of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) must overcome its own operational problems. Over the years, ICTO was provided with huge budgets, but had been struggling to spend all of these.

Two years ago, the office was allotted around P34 million for the CeC program. Out of this budget, ICTO failed to obligate P31.8 million as of November 2014

As ICTO takes a greater role in the government’s digitization initiative, it’s all the more important to strengthen the agency. What ICTO needs to do now is to improve its cash management, procurement, and human resource, because ICTO, for instance, has been designated as the lead agency tasked to evaluate ICT projects across agencies during budget preparation. It’s also handling procurement of big projects like Teach4Ed, Free Public Wifi, iGov Philippines, and e-Government Harmonization, among other projects.

Sustain free WiFi initiative

For poor households who live in nearby growth areas and have greater access to the net through their wireless devices, they would benefit from programs that provide free WiFi in public spaces.

Roxas proposed to continue the current administration’s WiFi initiative. Under this program, hotspot 2.0 technologies will be installed in public places such as town plazas, parks, government offices, health units, and transport terminals.

The government initially set aside P339 million to help bring WiFi in 967 3rd-6th class municipalities. ICTO acknowledged that only few service providers participated, given the low price contract for a program that aims to reach far-flung villages in poor municipalities.

Last year, the government decided to include 1st and 2nd class municipalities to serve as point of access. The budget was increased to P1.6 billion, serving 1,435 municipalities.

But should he become the president, Roxas will have to figure out a way to make this initiative sustainable without pricing out consumers. Better pricing schemes can be studied to attract more service providers and entice them to invest in more capital, particularly in poor municipalities. 

There’s also need to ensure faster internet speed for the public Wifi project. Under the current setup, each user is allotted 256 kbps, the lowest prevailing speed requirement for a broadband service—and users will also have “no assurance” they will receive the promised internet speed.

With limited internet speed, opening up the vast opportunities in the digital space can also be a slow process. With such speed, learners may not be able to view learning sessions or download resource materials, further deepening the “homework gap” between learners in poor households and rich households.

Speed up DepEd’s computerization program

It’s been said that those who most benefit from the digital revolution are those who have the mastery of skills necessary for the new economy work.

Digital literacy does matter in bridging the divide, so it matters that the country’s public schools are connected to the internet the faster the better.

When the Department of Education introduced the K to 12 Education program years ago, the agency also laid down a strategy that places ICT at the center of learning and teaching.

Over the years, the government has been spending billions for its computerization program, buying the necessary hardware and infrastructure, and hosting training seminars for teachers.

However, DepEd must address procurement delays, which has become one of the barriers in making computers accessible to all public schools. In the past, computers were delivered to schools three to seven months late.

The Commission on Audit noted IT packages worth P3.4 billion have not been delivered since 2012 even as these had been funded by previous budgets. The cause of delay was that at the time of the audit, bidding was still ongoing.

Because of these procurement delays and other challenges, DepEd too has been having a hard time spending its budget. In 2014, the agency was given P4.1 billion for its computerization program, but failed to obligate a big portion of this budget. The unused balance was P3.2 billion.

The consequence of DepEd’s procurement delays and underspending was felt nationwide. Data from DepEd show that only 22% of the total 46,598 elementary and secondary schools have internet connection as of April 2014.

The task to provide computers to learners is very urgent.

The next president must therefore lay down a catch-up strategy in the first few years in office. Time is not on the president’s side—as the procurement of computers drags on and DepEd slows down its spending, more and more students are leaving school without firm aptitude and skills for the digital economy.

Bringing e-government services to the poor

Ultimately, access to the internet can have real and meaningful impact on people when digital technologies enable the government to deliver services to its citizens.

The presidentiables understood that the power of digital technology lies in its ability to connect and bring the government closer to its citizens regardless of geography and time. They knew that digital technology has the potential to broaden public participation in policy making, enhance access to information, and remove barriers to public service.

Over the years, the government has invested heavily in digital technology. These days, businesses can now file taxes online. Citizens can now send real-time feedback to agencies—they also have access to vast amount of public data through the Open Data Philippines. Government agencies too are working more efficiently with the automation of many core administration systems like financial management. Active social media users like MMDA respond to citizen’s queries and in the process, create meaningful conversations online.    

But the irony of this strong push towards e-government is that the Philippines seems like falling behind many countries.

The country’ rank in the United Nations E-Government Survey has been sliding from 33 in 2003 to 94 around the world in 2014.  This global survey looks at three indices that examine the state of e-government—telecommunication infrastructure, capability of human resource, and provision of online services.

Online services index has gone down by 36%, while human capital index went down by 22% from 2003 to 2014. The Philippines’ telecommunication infrastructure score, although continuously increasing, remains low.

The decline in the quality of online services can be attributed in part to one observation the UN survey and other researchers have pointed out: most government websites display basic and simple features.

Most websites provide basic information or downloadable forms. Only few websites handle transactions or serve as platforms for citizen consultations.

This pattern is evident at the local level. In 2005, researcher Sheila Siar assessed e-governance at the city governments and what she found out was that only few websites contained information about frontline services or local projects.

And this pattern has persisted all the way back in early 2000s when another study found out that around that time, there was no “transactional website and most government websites were considered to have “enhanced web presence.”

This perhaps can explain why the level of citizen engagement is disappointingly low, even with the increasing web presence of government agencies. One study in 2014 noted that citizens accessed government websites “only when there was a need to do so.”

What the body of research studies tells us is a sobering reminder that as the government pushes its digital pivot, there’s still a lot of work to do to make online services more interactive, engaging, and participatory.

Transforming current websites into platforms for e-transactions and e-consultations will most certainly require robust data protection and data sharing mechanisms. The hacking of about 1,300 government websites from 2003 to 2013—particularly the most recent “Comeleak”—highlight the extent to which the government is prepared to take the digital leap.

What the studies also tell us is that as the national government prepares to invest in digital technologies in the coming years, local government units must lead the digital transformation in their localities.

After all, many of the transactions poor households have with the government involve local affairs. Elected local officials must complement the next president’s digital push by developing e-government services that their constituents need.

The future is mGovernment

But e-government services shouldn’t be focused on building internet-based platforms. Despite the dramatic growth of mobile phones in the Philippines, most government agencies make their digital leap through Internet-based websites, which are biased against the poor.

The reality, according to World Bank, is that in the Philippines and other developing countries, mobile phones, not the internet, drive interconnectedness.

2010 census data from the Philippine Statistics Authority shows that mobile phone penetration is high even in the poorest towns, suggesting that cellular phone is actually the primary means of communication for many poor households.

In 2010, there were 14.7 million households that declared owning cellular phone and only 1.9 million households declared having internet connection at home.

The future of e-government services is therefore mobile government (mGovernment). But the problem is that most of the policy proposals unveiled by the presidential candidates require internet-based solutions.  

The next president has to come up with a plan where agencies complement their internet-based services with text-based SMS applications.

The Civil Service Commission has already set up its own text-based service—so does the Philippine National Police. Frontline services like health, education, and disaster risk management should develop a suite of m-services to reach to more beneficiaries.

In the end, whatever the next president will decide, the important consideration that he or she needs to think over is that in the next six years as technologies are predicted to advance so rapidly, the gap will only widen deeper with a wrong mix of policy choices–or worse, a lack of coherent policy direction.

And whoever the 54.4 million voters will choose come election day, the important consideration that every voter needs to think over is that the next president’s policy choices are ultimately decided by the choices everyone made on May 9.

 

Read your candidate’s agenda here:

[Stack] Mar Roxas’ S&T Agenda

[Stack] Grace Poe’s S&T Agenda

[Stack] Rodrigo Duterte’s S&T Agenda

[Stack] Miriam Defensor Santiago’s S&T Agenda

 


John Alliage Morales edits this thought leadership platform. He has six years of progressive work experience in research, investigative reporting, and data journalism across different media platforms. He’s a fiscal transparency advocate and loves Excel.

is Voyager Innovations' thought leadership platform for science, technology, and innovation.

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