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Philippine ICT: Where we are and where we're heading (Part 1 of a two-part series)

I had planned to do a review of Philippine telecom and ICT right after the New Year festivities. But as with any plans, life got in the way. Looking back now, with some distance and perhaps a much better perspective, I can say that 2014 was a year of exciting new developments for the sector.

Here’s the first part of a belated but hopefully still relevant review of the year that was for Philippine telecom and ICT sector, in no particular order.

Filipinos demand better internet. The year 2014 saw the height of public clamor for better internet. “Better” means improved quality, greater access, and affordable price. Filipino cyber-citizens, perpetually ranting about slow and unreliable internet connection, eagerly monitored developments in #PHInternet on social media. Senator Bam Aquino led public hearings and personally attended public consultations by the regulator to investigate the problem since May 2014.

Local telcos’ services and performance got scrutinized left and right. The Senate, House of Representatives, National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), Department of Justice (DoJ), and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) have all jumped into the fray, most of them questioning the poor quality and high cost of internet service, telcos’ unlimited data plans, fair use policy, and expiring load credits – all under the umbrella of consumer rights protection.

Whether these public hearings and consultations would eventually lead to better and more affordable internet service depends on how persistent and resourceful reform advocates are in pushing for more competition in the market. It also rests on how urgent and relevant decision makers both in government and the telecom sector treat the internet, which some now consider as a third utility next to power and water.

Free Internet wars begin. The PLDT Group and Globe both launched free internet (select online content and services) promos around September, which came at the heels of ongoing Senate hearings to investigate the country’s slow and expensive internet and the Department of Science and Technology’s (DoST) proposal to offer free internet.

The major telcos keep extending this promo. And many are bewildered as to how the telcos can keep up with the huge increase in data demand if they could’t even offer good service prior to the free data offer.

According to a senior telecom expert, this can only be a sign that the telcos want Filipinos with smartphones to get off of WiFi and instead subscribe to a data plan to access content, like Facebook. And what better way to get people hooked to something than to offer it for free, in the beginning (that is). Remember Globe’s free SMS two decades ago?

Hopefully, though, the DoST-ICT Office's (ICTO) “free WiFi access in public spaces” project won’t take too long to deploy. In November, the Senate approved the transfer of 3 billion pesos ($68 million) from the Digital Empowerment Fund to the installation of around 52,000 WiFi hotspot across the country. However, the final budget was adjusted to 1.4 billion pesos — a still large amount to jumpstart the universal access project

Assuming that the government does this public WiFi project right, this could lead to a happy battle between private and public data service providers. Consumers stand to win as they can choose to switch between their own mobile data and public WiFi connection, whichever serves their purpose better. 

Government improves cybersecurity. There was greater awareness of online security last year, thanks (or no thanks) to a series of hacking and DDOS attacks of big businesses and government websites. This served as a litmus-test for DoST’s web-hosting service. So far, none of the compromised websites were hosted in DoST. Whew!

The ICT Office, through iGovPhil, has established the first national government data center at a government-owned facility and in December awarded a second contract to second largest telco Globe Telecom. Once the facility is completed, government agencies will be required to co-locate at the national government data center. A third data center is being built at another government facility. ICTO issued MC 2014-002 or the rules and regulations on migrating to the DOST’s government web hosting service (GWHS). The migration of government websites with simple features is almost complete, and a series of training have been underway.

The DOST already started the Philippine National Public Key Infrastructure (PNPKI) initiative, which provides a virtual “key” that subscribers can use to secure files and transactions over an otherwise unsecure public network like the Internet. A series of orientation and training workshops on PKI were conducted over the past year. DOST also distributed PKI on several occasions, most recently to Commission on Audit (CoA) auditors last December. However, according to a state university-based user, as of end-2014, the PKI’s certificate authority is not yet accepted by any browser.

Digital empowerment gets funding. About 2.6 billion pesos was allocated in the 2015 national budget for the  procurement of digital devices for public sector employees, including teachers, under the The Digital Empowerment Fund (DEF). The three-year program was delayed for a year because part of its funding source was from the controversial Development Acceleration Program (DAP), deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The government aims to distribute 96,000 laptops and desktops to those with Salary Grade 4. However, half of the budget has been re-allocated by Congress to the free public WiFi project, also to be implemented by ICTO.

While the DEF program has good intentions, but runs the risk of getting outdated and unnecessarily cumbersome to manage. The global practice is the BYOD approach, with the proper guidance and security measures in place, and government providing connectivity. Also, with the stringent procurement process (as it should be), by the time a single purchase is completed, better gadgets and possibly cheaper devices are already out in the market.

(To be continued)