‘Pitiful’ digital transformation
The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) is a relatively new agency, created under Republic Act No. 10844, which was signed into law on May 23, 2016. This came after years of lobbying from various groups who feared the country would be left behind as the world has turned digital. The DICT was mandated to be the primary policy, planning, coordinating, implementing, and administrative agency tasked to plan, develop, and promote the national digital development agenda. Six years hence and its performance leaves much to be desired.
The enactment of the DICT Act was proclaimed as groundbreaking as it was expected to help the Philippines quickly shift to the digital world of business and governance. Private companies and consumers had expected more efficient delivery of government services such as permits and license applications with the integration of the databases of various agencies; closer regulation and monitoring of players in the telecommunications sector and eventually result in faster and cheaper internet connectivity, and the curbing of cybercrimes that have victimized millions of Filipinos.
Fast forward to 2022 and the DICT has not done much in implementing its mandate. During the deliberation on the agency’s 2023 budget last September, the DICT admitted to the House of Representatives that the fund utilization of the department in the past few years was distressing. DICT Secretary Ivan John Uy told lawmakers that the department faced challenges in implementing its programs. “Indeed, when I came in two months ago, when I was looking at the [budget] utilization of the department, it was pitiful,” Uy said in response to queries from lawmakers. Uy has been at the DICT only since the Marcos Jr. administration took over last July. Prior to him, the DICT during the Duterte administration was headed by former senator Gringo Honasan.
Northern Samar Rep. Paul Daza asked about what the problem was with DICT’s low budget utilization, despite the presence of several good programs on its agenda that required financing. According to the lawmaker, the DICT was able to use a measly 25 percent of its previous allocations. “We understand that the DICT has many good programs and projects […] but please allow me … to maybe focus on some of the issues and problems that the DICT has faced in the last few years,” Daza said. According to the lawmaker, DICT has a target of 105,000 free public Wi-Fi spots, which had a P12-billion allocation from Congress. But until now, only 10 percent of the sites were supposedly established, and only four percent were operating.
Uy said the free public Wi-Fi program was slow moving because a lot of areas have already terminated the service as early as August 2021. “I was aghast when I found [this] out. And there was no effort at all to renew those connectivity,” he noted. The free Wi-Fi is particularly very important to the education sector following the shift to online learning in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This lack of internet connectivity has often been cited as a major problem in the remote learning process, especially in the provinces.
Another issue that the DICT failed to address has been the expensive, but slow internet service available in the country, perhaps due to the fact that the duopoly of Globe Telecom and PLDT Inc. still lord it over. The third player, Dito Telecommunity of Davao-based businessman Dennis Uy, continues to struggle to expand its operations, even getting into disputes with the incumbent players.
There are other concerns that the DICT needs to address, but focusing on the free public Wi-Fi project and bringing the services of private telco providers up to par should get priority. “I assure the committee and my fellow workers that [underutilization of funds] will not happen under my watch,” Uy promised lawmakers during the DICT budget hearing. As Daza pointed out, people hope that the free public Wi-Fi project will be a priority for the new leadership in the agency.
This appears to be the direction of the DICT, whose new secretary had vowed immediately after his appointment that he would prioritize internet connectivity in far-flung areas in order for them to access medical services and to improve the education system. The public can also take comfort in the fact that the new secretary, who has promised to reactivate the free public Wi-Fi project, has a strong background in information technology, unlike his predecessor. Uy was chair of the now-defunct Commission on Information and Communications Technology during the administration of the late President Benigno Aquino III, and was instrumental in the digital transformation of the Supreme Court during the time of Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. There is still hope, it seems, in the country’s quest to bridge the digital divide.
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