By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran
Though far from a complete panacea to the country’s troubles during the COVID-19 crisis, digital technology and connectivity have been instrumental in minimizing the pandemic’s impact. In fact, the rapid adoption of digital technologies was recommended by the World Bank to help the Philippines overcome the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, recover from the crisis, and achieve its vision of becoming a middle-class society free of poverty.
A joint report released by the World Bank and the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in October last year, titled “A Better Normal Under COVID-19: Digitalizing the Philippine Economy Now,” found that the use of digital technologies such as digital payments, e-commerce, telemedicine, and online education, has risen in the country, softening the pandemic’s blow to individuals, businesses, and the government.
“This pandemic has caused substantial disruptions in the domestic economy as community restrictions have limited movement of people and reduced business operations nationwide. As we are now living with the new normal, the use of digital technology and digital transformation have become important for Filipinos in coping with the present crisis, moving towards economic recovery, and getting us back on track towards our long-term aspirations,” NEDA Undersecretary Rosemarie G. Edillon said in the report.
However, the present “digital divide,” which separates those who have access to the internet and those without, is hindering the potential of digital technology to give Filipinos equal opportunities.
“Internet connectivity — the foundation of the digital economy — is limited in rural areas, and where they are available, services are relatively expensive and of weak quality,” said Ndiame Diop, World Bank country director for Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, during the BusinessWorld Virtual Economic Forum.
“Upgrading digital infrastructure all over the country will introduce fundamental changes that can improve social service delivery, enhance resilience against shocks, and create more economic opportunities for all Filipinos,” he added.
Bridging the digital divide
As one of the country’s major telecommunications providers, Globe Telecom, Inc. is all too aware of this digital divide. The company launched a three-pronged strategy in 2020 to improve digital connectivity and data experience for Filipinos.
“We are committed to doing aggressive cell site builds which is why our capex has been increasing since last year,” Globe President and Chief Executive Officer Ernest L. Cu said.
“In addition, we are upgrading our mobile network to 4G/LTE and 5G using many different frequencies since 3G technology for mobile data is already obsolete. With the newer technologies, we will be able to deliver better data and faster browsing speeds to our customers,” he added.
Globe built close to 1,300 new towers in 2020 or 18% more than 2019. In addition, the company said that it has upgraded over 11,500 sites with 4G/LTE, resulting in an improved network experience for its customers.
On the home connectivity front, Globe is also investing in more fiber lines to Filipino homes nationwide, as well as upgrading the lines of existing qualified customers still using copper lines to fiber at no additional cost to the customer.
“Our commitment in 2021 is to build an additional 2,000 sites and one million fiber lines for home broadband,” Mr. Cu said, noting the considerable challenge this commitment requires.
Building more towers or sites requires the availability of strategically located property to put them up, Mr. Cu pointed out, and such locations are necessary to improve access to connectivity in the country.
“We still encounter difficulty in entering some gated subdivisions and villages, and securing the approval of homeowners. Vertical building developments like condominiums must also include broadband connectivity during the planning stage of development instead of post-development. This mindset has to change. Today, connectivity is an essential need just like light and water. So Internet connection has to be treated on the same level as other utilities and not just a ‘nice to have’,” Mr. Cu said.
Regardless, the company remains confident that five years down the line it can equip more homes with increased fiber connectivity and see a bigger 5G footprint across the country.
5G is the next generation of wireless technology that promises mobile data speeds of up to 100 times faster than 4G and a substantial reduction in latency, or a measure of delay or the amount of time required for data to get to its intended destination.
“With these two capabilities, the Filipino will be able to enjoy better video streaming, downloading and surfing, but also a new range of future technologies and uses like self-driving cars, connected cities and so much more,” Mr. Cu said.
“We believe that the country is now ready for a digital transformation because the level of adoption across all market segments has been tremendous. The use of new technologies like 5G is crucial because of its capabilities and overall better experience. The continued reduction in the prices of 5G-capable smartphones and the rapid deployment of the 5G network across the country augurs well for the country as more Filipinos will enjoy the benefits of this technology,” Mr. Cu added.