Philippine internet, ICT lagging behind

15 May 2012

In CNN’s recent Eye on the Philippines feature, it was fascinating to see the number of internet users right next to the population infographic. This is proof that access to ICT, especially the internet, is as important a statistic as any development indicator in today’s hyperconnected world.

The Internet World Stats ranked the Philippines no. 7 among Asia’s top internet countries, with 30 million online citizens to boast. But does this figure mean anything? Although 30 million sounds like a lot, it roughly translates to 29% online Filipinos out of 102 million. This is 10% less than the internet penetration rate of a low-income country like Kyrgyzstan (39%)—a paradox considering that the Philippines is a lower-middle income nation and two stages higher than Kyrgyzstan in terms of digitization.

Internet laggard the Philippines is also marred by poor connection quality. In Akamai’s State of the Internet Report for the fourth quarter of 2011, internet in the Philippines was found to be among the slowest in the Asia Pacific region, with an average speed of 1.1 Mbps. This falls below Akamai's definition of broadband – connection speeds of above 2 Mbps.

The report pointed out that “only a privileged few” (7.1%) actually enjoy broadband-speed connectivity, a stark contrast to that of neighbors like Malaysia (22%), Singapore (67%), and Thailand (70%). If Philippine ISPs do not feel the need to catch up with their Asian counterparts, they ought to improve service for their clients.

Filipino consumers feel that internet service in the country leaves much to be desired. And they are willing to shell out more money for better service quality, depending on how they use broadband and for particular circumstances, a recent survey by Ericsson’s ConsumerLab revealed. This begs the question: Aren’t consumers already paying enough for broadband? Or is slow internet caused by poor infrastructure combined with the telcos’ business practice of oversubscription?

In a broader context, this top Facebook user-country (ranked 8th in the world) has sadly remained a straggler in exploiting ICT’s full potential. The latest Networked Readiness Index (NRI) ranked the Philippines at no. 86 (out of 142 countries)—its worst performance in five years, starting from no. 69 (out of 122) in 2006. The NRI’s sub-indices point to some national issues that give a clearer picture of why and how the Philippines has failed to leverage ICT to boost its competitiveness.

Under the environment subindex (quality of political and regulatory environment, as well as business and innovation environment), the Philippines scored lower than most of its Southeast Asian neighbors and even a few low-income African and Latin American nations.

This poor ranking could mean the absence of a policy framework that helps expand ICT access and allows the best possible use technology. This is not surprising given the absence of a central government agency to oversee ICT development in the country. It also suggests that doing business could be tough, with problems like excessive red tape and uncertain intellectual property protection, among others.

In terms of readiness (infrastructure and digital content, affordability, and skills), the Philippines scored better globally, but still lower than Indonesia and Thailand. This may partly explain why these countries continue to attract investments far more successfully than the Philippines.

The Philippines fell behind its Southeast Asian neighbors when it came to ICT usage. How is ICT being utilized for meaningful everyday use by individuals, business, and government? Does ICT usage end in sending an average of 1.8 billion text messages a day or immense fascination with virtual social networking? To what extent are business entities utilizing ICT? Does the government prioritize ICT? How many online government services are being offered?

If the Philippines’ internet and ICT were to ever catch up with the rest of the world, many questions need to be addressed. The answers may not come easy, but it is important to never stop asking.

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