The third utility
Two weeks after the 2016 elections, and six weeks before his term ends, President Aquino signed the “Department of Information and Communications Technology Act of 2015” into law. Contrary to the not-so-idle suggestion of Sen. Ralph Recto, an Aquino ally and principal sponsor of the consolidated Senate bill, the delayed signing did not take place in a tech-appropriate place, such as “a coffee shop where BPO [business process outsourcing] workers congregate. That would be a good backdrop.”
Better the same Palace backdrop than nothing, we suppose, because Republic Act No. 10844 is not only necessary, but vital. Recto has called information and communications technology (or ICT) “the third utility, after power and water,” and every day more people will agree with him. Another of the main movers in the Senate, Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, tweeted yesterday: “We authored d #DICT bill w hope a new dedicated dept can help reap the gains available fr d online economy #ra10844.”
That is certainly the hope.
To be sure, the short title of the new law can be misinterpreted, as just another addition to bureaucratic bloat. But advocates say the law actually streamlines the government agencies and organizations involved in the information and communications technology (or ICT) sector, bringing clarity and coherence.
In his sponsorship speech of the consolidated bill in March last year, Recto met the issue head on: “To criticisms that the creation of a Department of ICT is a symptom of that government disease to mutate agencies and multiply regulation, then let me assure you that such has no basis.” He also said: “Let me assure you that these mergers won’t birth a huge bureaucracy nor burn a deep hole in the taxpayer’s pocket. It will have the same, if not smaller, budgetary footprint, as what the affected agencies together have.” He was talking about the abolition of five government agencies as well as several operating units in the Department of Transportation and Communications, and the transfer of their functions, resources and personnel to the new department. And also: “We’re limiting the number of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. Creation of regional offices is optional, not mandatory.”
(One of the lesser known pleasures of Senate coverage is the occasional classic sponsorship speech, such as Recto’s. It was a clever and convincing presentation, punctuated by the use of ICT-related metaphors throughout and—in an attempt to secure the bill’s base of support in the chamber—even offering a warm look at the ICT habits of some of his colleagues. Historians in the future will read it for passages like this: “Our meetings are livestreamed on the Senate website, Pia [Cayetano] tweets in between interpellation, Sonny [Angara] Instagrams his attendance, and even the youngest member of the chamber, born in 1924, when Manila had less than 2,000 telephones, totes an iPad for research—and recreation.” Recto was, of course, referring to Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile, who famously plays games on his tablet.)
What is the new law about? It is designed, we read in the section on mandate, to “promote the national ICT development agenda.” It does so through the new Department of ICT, which has four primary areas of responsibility: policy and planning; improved public access; resource-sharing and capacity-building; and consumer protection and industry development.
Of these four, likely the first to get public notice (and widespread approval) will be the improvement of public access to the internet, which includes the direction to “Establish a free internet service that can be accessed in government offices and public areas using the most cost-effective telecommunications technology, through partnership with private service providers as may be necessary.”
“Hopefully, beginning next month, select areas in 12 regions will be the first to benefit from free public Wi-Fi,” Recto said in a press statement. The statement went on to say that the initiative, “officially called the Free Wi-Fi Internet Access in Public Places Project, aims to provide free broadband internet access to 1,462 Class 1-6 municipalities, and 44 key cities nationwide.”
A good start, if somewhat delayed. Now the next step is critical: The Aquino and the Duterte administrations must work closely together to avoid regulatory capture of the new department, by appointing the right candidates to the new positions.
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