Critical moment for digital push
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing many activities to be done digitally — or via the internet — to do away with physical contacts that may spread the novel coronavirus. This has benefited many consumers who now get nearly everything they need delivered to their doorsteps. Scores of businesses are actually thriving in this crisis, among them digital payments services, couriers, and even home-based entrepreneurs managing to make profits by selling goods online.
Many more ordinary citizens will benefit from the shift to an online environment if local government units (LGUs) will heed the call of the Anti-Red Tape Authority (Arta) for them to use software developed by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). The software will enable the online application for and processing of building and occupancy permits, a major source of corruption and red tape in the government.
LGUs should see the wisdom of the offer from Arta and DICT, which includes assistance in the transition to digital—from streamlining to automating the whole permitting processes. This, in turn, will help establish more transparency, efficiency and, importantly, delivering services to the public in a manner less encumbered by bureaucracy and red tape. LGUs only need a stable internet connection and an information technology office, as well as an official website or Facebook page, to host the software.
Admittedly, it is in the matter of a stable internet connection that many LGUs will face a number of problems. As it is, the government is still pushing the private telecommunications sector to improve and broaden its services nationwide, with the Philippines burdened by one of the poorest such services in the region. The intermittent internet has long been blamed on the lack of cell towers across the archipelago, but the duopoly of Globe Telecom and PLDT Inc. blame in turn the difficulty of securing from LGUs the required permits to build the towers.
The recently passed Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2) is aimed at addressing this discrepancy through the suspension of the issuance of certain permits and requirements (excluding building permits) needed for the construction of telco towers in the next three years.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, who proposed the suspension, noted that the convoluted requirements for the construction of telco towers have slowed down the development of internet services. Deploring the fact that the Philippines continues to have one of the slowest internet connections in Southeast Asia and even among Asia-Pacific countries, Drilon pointed out that as many as 29 to 35 documents and permits were required before a single tower could be constructed in a subdivision, barangay, or town. These included, among others, the consent of the neighbors, barangay resolution, certificate of noncoverage, zoning clearance, height clearance, radiation evaluation studies, a city or municipal resolution, and mayor’s permit.
Another source of hope that the landscape may be changing is that the third telco player will be coming on board soon, although its rollout has been slightly delayed by the pandemic. Last August, the House of Representatives approved the 25-year franchise bid of Dito Telecommunity Corp., the third player selected in 2018 and owned by Davao-based businessman and presidential ally Dennis A. Uy’s Udenna Corp., in partnership with the state-run China Telecom. Under its franchise, Dito is mandated to cover at least 37 percent of the population with an average minimum internet speed of 27 megabits per second in the first year of its operation. While it was originally required to start operations in July, the company was given a six-month reprieve on its commitments due to delays brought about by the pandemic. (National-security concerns have also been raised in relation to its partnership with the Chinese firm.)
Last June, Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate public services committee, cited the need for “big, bold steps” by the telecommunication sector to provide Filipinos fast and reliable internet connection amid the COVID-19 health and economic crises. The government needs to work closely with the private sector to upgrade services and, at the same time, bring down internet costs for a hard-up public struggling to survive these trying times by going online, from buying goods to continuing their kids’ education. As Drilon aptly observed, the internet has become even more of a basic commodity today, a tool for work and education for a country of 109 million living with a pandemic.
With businesses, the government, and ordinary Filipinos becoming more and more dependent on the internet, the government and the private telcos must recognize this critical moment and rise to the challenge of bringing digital services in the country at least at par with or — a seeming impossibility — even better than those of the Philippines’ neighbors. The commitment of these other nations to cutting-edge technology and innovation has reaped enormous rewards for their governments and peoples. Filipinos deserve as much.
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