PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte is not the first Philippine leader to call for a better internet network for the country, but he may be the first whose call has attracted widespread attention outside the country.
This week, the noted economic research and consulting firm Oxford Business Group highlighted Duterte’s “agenda for a smarter and faster Philippines” in its weekly report, referring to Duterte’s July 25 State of the Nation Address in which he disclosed that he had tasked the new Department of Information and Communication Technology (DICT) to develop a plan for a nationwide fiber-optic and wireless network.
That the Philippines needs a much better communications network is painfully obvious to any of us who are obliged to try to use it, but the statistics cited by OBG put the depth of our digital despair in stark relief: The Philippines ranks 21st out of 22 Asian countries in terms of internet download speeds.
That performance has only moderately improved over the past two years, according to OBG, creeping up by 1 Mbps from 2.5 Mbps to 3.5 Mbps. At the same time, the analysts point out, Vietnam improved from 2.9 Mbps to 5.0 Mbps, while Indonesia and Thailand both raised their internet speeds by more than 50 percent, to 4.5 Mbps and 10.8 Mbps, respectively.
OBG also noted that Philippine internet users are saddled with some of the highest prices on the planet, the equivalent of more than $18 per month, compared with a global average of $5.20 per month.
Bad service and high costs have limited Philippine broadband penetration to about 11 percent of the population, OBG said.
Increasing broadband availability to more people is critical to the economy, it explained, because according to a study by the World Bank, an increase of 10 percent in broadband penetration can increase GDP by up to 1.38 percent.
OBG also took note that no details of the plan have been revealed, and expressed some mild misgivings about whether the country would be successful in carrying out the objective, given the history of failed aspirations, most recently the aborted National Broadband Network (NBN) scheme under the Arroyo Administration.
Those misgivings are not at all misplaced, and they should serve as a significant caution to the Duterte Administration. Failure to follow through on what is, at this point, an aspiration, will be viewed quite negatively.
And there are many ways the plan could fail. For one thing, it is not at all certain whether the government has the human and material resources to effectively manage a large-scale network. The most likely method of deployment will be through an arrangement similar to that of the old NBN plan, which tapped Chinese telecom giant ZTE to develop the network.
And it is a virtual certainty that any plan that does not allow the country’s two dominant telecom providers, PLDT and Globe, to have a substantial stake will face fierce resistance. The recent success of the two companies in getting a court to halt the review of their controversial multibillion peso deal to acquire San Miguel Corp’s valuable 700 MHz spectrum and other assets is likely a hint of things to come, should a plan that might threaten their stranglehold on the market gain traction.
We hope the Administration moves with purpose to carry out the President’s call, but more importantly, we hope that the risks are recognized, and due regard to steps to preventing them from scuttling – again – capacity the country sorely needs to flourish are taken.