Digital transformation is where we should go

Louie C. Montemar, Professor of Sociology and Political Science, and a Fellow for Education at the Stratbase ADR Institute

The National Telecommunications Commission made a big to-do about the passage of the Mobile Number Portability (MNP) Act on Sept. 30 this year.

This was going to be a game changer, they said. Imagine, if mobile phone subscribers are not happy with the service they are getting, they can easily switch to yet another mobile service provider without having to change their mobile number. This was the next big thing that could happen to all dissatisfied and disgruntled customers out there.

Alas, the game changer turned out to be a dud.

One month after the effectivity of the law, the uptake has been dismal. Data from Telecommunications Connectivity, Inc., a joint-venture company composed of all telcos created to operationalize the law, tell us that only some 1,000 subscribers crossed over from one mobile provider to another. The total subscriber base is more than 100 million.

Why hasn’t the MNP taken off like it was expected to?

Perhaps 10 years ago the response would have been different. These days, however, alternative ways to communicate are always around the corner — and they do not come in the form of the competing mobile service provider. For example, you are trying to call your friend and the call is dropped or you cannot get through for some reason. You are not going to wish you had a different mobile provider. Instead, you will send an e-mail, or a message on social media, or get use a downloaded app to reach your friend.

Long before this law was passed, many Filipinos have had dual SIMs for several reasons. Getting another prepaid SIM is relatively easy in this part of the world. This extra is a backup — not a replacement — for when their main provider encounters problems. They want to avoid extra charges for calling a number from another network. They want to avail themselves of promotions that are not offered by one network. For those who travel outside Metro Manila, one network may have a stronger signal than the other. Others use a spare SIM for personal or business communications.

So, yes, that ship has sailed.

MNP’S SAVING GRACE

The MNP still succeeds in telling us something of ultimate importance: It was a prescription for the wrong ailment. The real ailment is the vast digital gap across locations, industries, and socio-economic classes in the Philippines. What we need is seamlessness of our digital networks.

First, it reminds us that the internet has become an essential part of our daily life. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the public’s need for the internet to perform their day-to-day transactions, from remote working or studying, to online banking and shopping, to health consultations, to connecting with friends and family.

After the lockdowns consigned us to our homes, we realized we had only been delaying the inevitable. We were going to have to go digital, anyway. The pandemic simply catalyzed our shift.

Second, it exposes the still-wide gaps in internet connectivity across our archipelago.

The convenience with which we could order our food, for instance, or the ease with which our children could join their synchronous classes does not necessarily apply to most other places in the country. In many places, connectivity remains difficult, and many Filipinos do not enjoy stable, much less reliable, connection which they can then use to facilitate their everyday needs. Clearly, something must be done.

Third, it shows what recovery looks like. More things need to be done in the name of improving the country’s digital infrastructure. It was important pre-COVID. It is even more important now. We cannot survive this protracted crisis, much less compete in the new normal, without an improved digital infrastructure.

Alongside digital infrastructure is the need to improve our human capital by investing in people — helping them gain access to tools and new skills that they need to navigate the new normal and be a highly competitive digital workforce ready to engage the world of e-commerce and innovative cloud solutions.

Fourth, it is an opportunity for the government to set an example and harness digital technology to serve the people better.

Unfortunately, the Department of Information and Communications Technology itself is facing a blank wall. Its National Broadband Plan (NBP) has not received ample support from the National Government in terms of funding.

This lack of prioritization of the NBP is a critical flaw on the part of the government. It will have dire consequences because the infrastructure will not be able to match surging demand despite the aggressive expansion and investments of private telcos.

Finally, it emphasizes the importance of public-private partnerships. The private sector has been doing its part in pouring in investments in telecommunications infrastructure and even in upskilling certain sectors of the population so that they can be better prepared for the demands of the next normal. The government, while it has had some initiatives, needs to have more focus, consistency, and persistence in collaborating with the business sector to achieve these goals.

There are many factors that explain why MNP did not fly. What is important is for our government to lead the digital transformation of our whole ecosystem and become an enabler and less of a regulator.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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