Full plate for Honasan at DICT
No less than his former Senate colleagues pointed out that Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan still carries around, as his personal mobile phone, a Nokia 3210 — an analog model that was first sold locally exactly 20 years ago.
In the age of smartphones that can take high-definition pictures and videos, be used to pay for transportation and a cup of coffee, book one’s next vacation, and pay utility bills or transfer funds to other bank accounts, the soldier-turned-lawmaker-turned-Cabinet secretary’s limited exposure to current mobile phone technology is a valid cause for concern.
Is he up to the challenge of heading no less than the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT)?
Still, it’s also true that the most pressing issues the new DICT chief will face will probably benefit more from a leader who has political will, than from one with simply a firm grasp of the latest trends in technology (though that would certainly help).
There is the much-delayed promise of the Duterte administration to provide long-suffering Filipinos with an alternative telecommunications service provider that will break the stranglehold of the so-called duopoly of Globe Telecom Inc. and the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. on the local market.
As the world moves forward, leveraging technology and massive information to address some of the biggest social problems like environmental degradation, poverty and inequality, or even vehicular traffic, the Philippines — with its slow and expensive internet services — risks getting left behind once again.
Honasan would do well to prioritize the implementation of this key campaign promise of the President. If executed properly, it would go a long way toward improving the lives of all Filipinos and boosting the economy.
The challenge facing him is to either obtain the cooperation of established players in the telecommunications space to genuinely give this “third telco” enough market space to thrive, or simply to ram through any barriers to entry they may erect if they insist on maintaining the status quo.
He will have to make sure that the third telco player will be a viable business enterprise, and not one that will survive only because of government concessions that can swiftly be taken away once the Duterte administration is no longer in power.
This is where Honasan’s political experience as a legislator and consensus-builder will be useful. As DICT chief, he will have to promote policies that will make the third telco a legitimately competitive player, and not a crony enterprise. Failing to walk this fine line will result in a missed opportunity for the country, not to mention the possibility of wasting considerable human and financial capital.
Then there is the pressing issue of cybersecurity, over which the department also has purview. In a world where the most valuable currency is information, the DICT needs to step up to the plate and help fortify the country’s woefully underequipped private and public sectors to guard against electronic infiltration and disruption.
Whether the disruptors are Filipino hackers wanting to execute their latest online prank or “state-sponsored actors” looking to infiltrate the local banking system or tap government communications or manipulate elections and the Philippine political landscape, the threat is real.
It will be challenging, given the role that China, for instance — which has behaved aggressively toward the Philippines in terms of territorial claims, and is also aggressively moving into the local economic sphere — plays in the communications infrastructure of the country, through the advanced (and cheap) equipment it sells to everyone.
The Philippines needs a comprehensive national strategy to deal with this concern, similar to the approaches adopted by Israel and Singapore where the government and private sector work hand in hand. The DICT, with the benefit of Honasan’s national security background, should take the lead in this undertaking.
Ultimately, what the country needs at the top of the department is a mindset that can anticipate challenges and breakthroughs in an environment that is notorious for the speed at which things change, and how such developments can be harnessed for the country’s progress.
Honasan’s vision as DICT chief should be of a Philippines that can stand toe to toe with the world in the digital age. The country’s economic well-being, and the quality of life of Filipinos going forward, will depend to a large degree on the policies he will espouse from his new office.
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