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Internet as our ‘great equalizer’

The average Filipino internet user, according to the Global Web Index’s Social Summary for Q3 2015, spends more than three-and-a-half hours a day on online social networks—the highest in the world, or about twice as much as the world average of 1.77 hours per day. While the Philippines has been described as the “texting capital of the world” since the past decade, we seem to have brought that to a higher level and can now very well be tagged the “social networking capital of the world.”

Slow internet notwithstanding, Filipinos have taken to social networking, and the internet in general, with extraordinary zeal. The digital realm is now carried everywhere and is not merely an important part, but rather an integrated element, of our daily lives. Sen. Ralph Recto, principal sponsor of the Senate bill on the recently enacted law creating the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), calls information and communications technology (or ICT) “the third utility, after power and water.”

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Filipinos use the internet for far more than posting selfies and sharing political memes. Viber, the internet-based messaging platform, has been downloaded over 20 million times in the country, and is popularly used to communicate especially with those working abroad. Mobile-based transport network companies like Grab and Uber are now all over our streets, giving commuters an alternative to having their own cars or using public transportation. Private motorists use Waze in navigating the congested streets to find the fastest route to their destinations. Video-on-demand provider iflix hit 2 million subscriptions after only a year of operation in the country. Lazada Philippines, the country’s largest online retailer, tripled its sales in a year, hitting P1.1 billion in gross revenues in 2014.

More than impacting our lifestyles, the compelling need for inclusive growth that has eluded us for so many years can well provide the impetus for promoting wide internet accessibility for Filipinos. We need to make our world a fairer place, and the internet just might be the “great equalizer” we need to lead us toward that end. Making internet readily accessible nationwide does not only mean everyone can access Facebook; it also means much wider access to the empowering knowledge and information that the internet holds.

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In particular, access to basic education can be vastly improved through a strong nationwide internet infrastructure. We already have large numbers of online tutors in the country teaching English to other nationalities; there’s no reason we cannot utilize the same technology in basic education. Apart from making textbooks much more easily and widely available, equipping schoolchildren with electronic tablets can emancipate them from having to lug backbreaking schoolbags every day. More importantly, basic education can more easily reach children and youth in remote areas otherwise beyond the access of schools and teachers. The Department of Education’s Abot-Alam Program launched last year promises to be the beginning of this, providing out-of-school youth an alternative learning system or alternative delivery modes. The content of these devices can be saved in online repositories, making them easily recoverable if the devices are lost or damaged, and much easier to update.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Financial Services for the Poor program brings forth yet another opportunity to help poor households, especially those in remote areas, by giving them access to formal financial services through digital means. The US Agency for International Development has helped poor farmers in Pakistan and elsewhere by creating a mobile program that provides farmers information about crop prices, market access, and disease prevention. Unicef’s U-Report, an SMS-based project, is now being used as a means to monitor and evaluate programs in Africa. Handheld devices like smartphones and tablets can be put to good use in typhoon-prone areas for internet-based early warning systems that can substantially mitigate loss of life and property associated with natural disasters.

Government services otherwise difficult to access for geographic or logistic reasons can also become more available, accessible and prompt. Estonia, a fairly new country that gained independence in the 1990s, invested in extensive digital infrastructure, and provided free Wi-Fi “even in forests,” and computerization and web-connectivity of all schools. This paved the way for the “e-government” it is now known for. Estonians only take minutes to file their annual tax returns or register a business online. Courtal, an e-court system, allows cases to be filed and heard electronically, eliminating the need to visit a courthouse, while fines can be paid without having to visit the bank. An e-prescription system permits patients to refill prescriptions without the need to visit the doctor, and state medical subsidies are reflected in the patient’s records accessible to the pharmacist so discounts can be given automatically. This is light years away from that country’s humble beginnings, when less than half of Estonians even had a telephone line. Picture the Philippines in the same situation: no more long lines, no more long waiting times, and no more need to travel to some office in the city and take a leave from work to file government paperwork.

The Philippines’ digital future now lies in the hands of the new DICT mandated to plan, develop and promote the national ICT development agenda. With so much promise and so much at stake, Filipinos wait for change with the same patience they have in waiting for a YouTube video to load.

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TAGS: Department of Information and Communications Technology, DICT, education, internet, social media
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