Turning the digital divide to dividends

Terry Ridon, Non-Resident Fellow of Stratbase ADR Institute and Convenor of InfraWatch PH

In a recent speech, President Rodrigo Duterte declared that face-to-face classes will be suspended until a vaccine for the coronavirus disease 2019 has been found. As a result, the country’s educational system, from basic to higher education, finds itself abruptly shifting to either blended or online modes of instruction.

No less than Education Secretary Leonor Briones admitted that this new setup is a challenge, as this shift entails not only training an entire army of teachers and staff on how best to deliver educational content via computer screens, but also ensuring that the infrastructure for this new policy will be sufficient to support the demand.

The country’s current ranking in Speedtest.net’s mobile internet speed index is not reassuring; especially as mobile internet is the main gateway to the internet for most Filipino households. Ranking 121 with an average mobile internet speed of 14.23Mbps, we are trailing Côte d’Ivoire, Nepal, and Haiti, countries which had undergone fairly recent political upheavals and natural disasters. These countries’ Gross Domestic Product per capita are at worst a quarter (Haiti) of our own GDP per capita or at best half (Côte d’Ivoire) of ours.

In comparison with our peers in Southeast Asia, our internet ranking should definitely worry us. Both with lower GDP per capita than the Philippines, Vietnam ranks 60th and Laos ranks 91st in mobile internet speeds.

These indicators show that despite benchmark GDP growth in recent years, the country’s digital infrastructure has not progressed at a level consistent with our economic output. This digital divide is one of the country’s most binding constraints, the impact of which will certainly be more felt as Philippine education shifts to online learning.

The reasons for the stunted growth of the country’s digital infrastructure has been well documented. In order to increase coverage and ensure reliable delivery of mobile internet, at least 50,000 cell towers need to be built around the country. According to the Department of Information and Communications Technology, the country only has about 19,000 cell towers, the expansion of which has been stymied by the time-and-resource consuming processing of no less than 25 permits and documents needed at both the national and local government levels.

While the Ease of Doing Business Law provides specific deadlines in the processing of permits and licenses, the value of abiding by strict timelines has not yet permeated fully within the bureaucracy. This is because the anti-red tape law does not punish the unreasonable or arbitrary exercise of discretion in the processing of permits and licenses, it only punishes the failure to comply with timelines.

As a result, applicants remain on their toes on whether or not their applications will be approved or rejected despite complete requirements. We have seen these in some regulatory agencies that despite complete requirements, every supposedly legal or policy objection to frustrate applications had been raised. Imagine undergoing the same processes in at least 25 permits or licenses, just to build a single cell tower.

As we enter the new normal with the shift to online education, no less than the President should set the stage to fast-track the country’s digital infrastructure development, as blended or fully online modes of education cannot be effective without fast, reliable internet. The advantages of effective use integrating ICT in education are already obvious. The rich and engaging content available to learners and the skill sets needed to survive in a digitized world is now the standard that must be democratized.

For this school year, at least eight million students will be enrolled, with at least five million in basic education and at least three million in higher education. Cognizant of the limitations of public-school learners in accessing devices and the internet, the Department of Education has announced a blended learning strategy where online and offline modes will be available depending on the realities of each school. When schools eventually start non-face-to-face classes, the current bandwidth and signal of our telecommunications infrastructure will be put to the test.

But national leadership during crises has always been key to solving national problems. The President should take the lead: create a taskforce to fast-track digital infrastructure development with an immediate focus on supporting online learning. National agencies and local governments should cooperate in expediting the building of new infrastructure for digital expansion.

By doing this, we are more than certain that the great digital divide will turn into digital dividends, not only for our students in blended or online education, but for a host of productive sectors reliant on fast, reliable internet for their operations.




This article was originally published in BusinessWorld. 

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