On May 16, a student of Capiz State University in Capiz province met her untimely demise when the motorcycle she was riding figured in an accident while she was looking for an internet café to submit her school requirements, according to a Bombo Radyo report.
Another media outlet, The Jakarta Post, reported that a student from Hasanuddin University in Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia died after falling off a two-story mosque in his hometown of Sinjai while searching for internet connection.
These are just a few of the manifestations of the glaring digital divide inflicting harm on the less privileged as people around world have turned to the internet to conduct their business, work, schooling and daily lives.
Digital divide was a phrase coined in early 2000 to describe the discrepancy in access to technology resources, particularly the internet, between socioeconomic groups. Much has been written in literature about the need to address digital divide within nations and localities in order to facilitate the flow of information among entities and people, thereby spurring economic growth.
But the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic highlighted the need to address the digital divide, especially in poor and rural communities. Half of the world — or 3.4 billion people, predominantly in poor countries — still has no internet access or suffers from poor internet connectivity and prohibitively expensive services.
That is why global visionary Elon Musk, through SpaceX, launched 500 satellites into Earth’s orbit this year with the aim of providing internet coverage to most of the world by 2021. SpaceX is already inviting people from Canada and the United States to beta-test its Starlink satellites, a mega-constellation promising internet access from virtually anywhere on Earth. Barring political and regulatory hurdles in each country, this ambitious service would potentially narrow, if not eliminate, the digital divide globally.
Until then, in countries like the Philippines, where progress toward narrowing the digital divide remains anemic, people and businesses in both urban and rural areas suffer from spotty, expensive and slow connectivity, preventing and disrupting Filipinos in their day-to-day activities in this “new normal.”
Current internet rankings speak for themselves. According to the recent 2020 Inclusive Internet Index of the United Kingdom-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the Philippines ranked 63rd out of 100 countries. This index assessed internet availability, affordability, relevance and readiness using 56 indicators. Our country ranked 57th in availability, 82nd in affordability, 59th in relevance and 59th in readiness.
These are manifested in the size of our country’s internet economy. A 2019 Google-backed study showed that the Philippines has the smallest internet economy. Another study of The Asia Foundation-Philippines noted that “despite 25 years of liberalization and deregulation, and substantial investments in telecommunications infrastructure, for millions of Filipinos, the internet still is difficult to access.” Furthermore, “data shows [that] almost 45 percent (46 million) of Filipino citizens and 74 percent (34,500) public schools do not have access to the internet.”
The digital divide, already glaring as it is, is even more pronounced during this pandemic.
The state-chosen third telecommunications player Dito Telecommunity may potentially ease some of the deficiencies, but more players and government interventions are needed.
On the regulatory front, two bills are pending in Congress. They are House Bill (HB) 57, or “An Act Promoting Open Access in Data Transmission, Providing Additional Powers to the National Telecommunications Commission,” and Senate Bill 45, or “An Act Promoting Open Access in Data Transmission, Providing Additional Powers to the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) and for other purposes.”
Tarlac Rep. Victor Yap, author of HB 57, said the measure “would allow even the small service providers to build and operate their own network, which will benefit communities that remain underserved by big telecom network providers. This means that schools, SMEs (small and medium enterprises), and local governments in far-flung areas would now have opportunities for better internet connectivity.”
One out-of-the-box initiative I cited in my previous article was the Negros Oriental Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which “was able to provide off-grid internet to three high schools in Negros Oriental using the free bandwidth from the Department of Information and Communications Technology.” Furthermore, “a collaboration with the third telco player might cover the off-grid areas to provide internet to the rest of public schools nationwide.”
Addressing the digital divide requires a multisectoral effort and collaboration. This is urgent now.
The author is the founder and chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is also a fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation and the country representative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia. He teaches strategic management in the MBA program of De La Salle University. The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.