Getting digitally ready for economic sustainability and competitiveness

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Whether we should be more digitally adept at doing things is a foregone question. The COVID-19 pandemic that engulfed the world in 2020 — and continues to hit countries all over the world today — proves that this is essential to move on with life. The question is, up to what extent and how soon we can migrate to the ideal level of digitalization to be able to continue our pre-pandemic life with less compromise under a new order? 

With movement restrictions imposed by governments around the world to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, people are left with no choice but to quickly embrace digital tools and platforms as well as cloud-based technologies. This is especially true in work-from-home arrangements, online learning, undertaking business and government transactions, education, and, most importantly, delivery of medical-related services. As society adapts to a “new normal,” online services will be here to stay. But something basic will be needed: fast, reliable, and affordable internet connectivity. 

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the gaps and hindrances to the country’s digital transformation. Amid this heightened and abrupt demand for internet connectivity, there is an urgent need for extensive public-private investments for the development of more telecommunication services as well as government policies that are conducive for and support these kinds of endeavors for digitalization. Earlier this year, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) published the updated Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-2022, which seeks to build the foundation for a healthy and resilient Philippines through five key programs under the “new normal” one of which is digital transformation. 

As society becomes interconnected through the internet, all sectors will get more heavily reliant on faster broadband connectivity for continued business operations, education, transportation, health-related concerns, information dissemination, and delivery of public services. In addition, this high connectivity will also aid in hastening the fast digitization of government bureaucracies and private industries, which could enable them to comply with the minimum safety protocols to work amid the pandemic. 

The Philippine economy will only be able to bounce back more quickly with digital infrastructures that have the reach and capacity to serve as the foundation for online services and transactions. Hence, there is a need for a whole-of-society approach to make this happen, specifically with the lead of the private sector. 

Interestingly, the country’s standing eventually improved in April 2021, as it ranked 84th in mobile internet speed with an average download speed of 29.12 Mbps and 80th in fixed broadband speed with an average download speed of 49.31 Mbps. Compared to 2020, this is a 26 rank overtake in internet speed, a substantial gain primarily because of the heavy infrastructure investments of the private telco companies. 

While infrastructure and telecommunications towers play an integral role in the country’s path, digital transformation takes a lot more than internet connectivity. The population must be likewise ready and capable of harnessing digital tools to maximize their benefits. As more high-speed 5G areas are activated, the challenge will be to make these internet services accessible to users who are now using 4G and even 3G mobile phones, and to those in unserved and underserved areas. 

Acquiring the devices for accessing broadband services is just the first and is actually the easiest part. For public and private enterprises to harness the full benefits of cloud-based solutions, their respective organizations must have the competent technical support, and each user must have the understanding and skills beyond using their ICT devices as internet browsers or basic office applications. The potential of these new technologies to fully transform the efficiency and productivity of an organization is not fully understood. Therefore, the management of every establishment will need expert guidance to utilize their ICT investments effectively. 

Digital transformation is ushering in a new knowledge and skills revolution in people development. While technology and infrastructure can be developed and built, the digital future is also dependent on people’s new-generation skills and futureproofing growing organizations. Quality education remains to be a principal factor in preparing Filipinos to be digitally ready. This is also evident in both public and private organizations through personnel training, making improvements on processes, and developing and honing a culture of innovation and sustainability. Moreover, with continued business operations— thanks to digitalization — people can still find jobs and have a source of income amid the pandemic. 

But then again, while digital technology provides ease and convenience for everyone in adapting to the new normal, tech-savvy criminals are also exploiting it for illegal online activities. This reality punctuates the need for strengthening cybersecurity for all stakeholders, which will need the cooperation of the government, the private sector, and civil society. 

While private telecommunication firms continue with their efforts in developing telecommunications networks, the government must likewise do its part in investing in digital infrastructure that would connect underserved and unserved areas. Amidst the mounting challenges faced by the government, developing our ecosystems to become economic engines that would transform the Philippines into a competitive player in a globally digital economy will hasten economic recovery and sustainability. In symbiotic partnerships, the government can harness the expertise and experience of the private sector to build the country’s digital readiness and compete in a digital global economic environment. 

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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