By Miguel Hanz L. Antivola

PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. highlighted digitalization advancements in his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, but analysts said that internet affordability remains a major concern.

“Majority of Filipinos can only afford to ‘buy’ mobile internet subscriptions,” David Michael M. San Juan, professor at De La Salle University (DLSU), said in an e-mail interview on Thursday.

“Granted for the sake of argument that speed is no longer a problem, price still is,” he added.

The country ranked 55th out of 117 countries in the Digital Quality of Life Index 2022, conducted by virtual private network service provider Surfshark, dropping from its position at 48th in 2021.

The Philippines performed the worst in internet affordability, ranking 98th globally, down 26 places from 72nd a year prior, according to the report.

“Internet in the Philippines is not affordable compared to global standards,” Surfshark said.

It said a 1 gigabyte (GB) mobile internet package costs four minutes and 51 seconds of work per month in the Philippines, 59 times more than the five seconds of work needed to buy a 1 GB package in Israel, which has the most affordable mobile Internet in the world, based on the index.

“From what we see, the issues of internet access, cost, and reliability are the top most concerns to date,” Ronald Gustilo, national campaigner of Digital Pinoys, said in a Viber message.

“[Around] 65% of Filipinos still do not have internet access for various reasons — mostly because they reside in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDAs),” he said, citing data from the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

“However, they can have internet access through Starlink’s low orbit satellite tech, but it is too expensive.”

SpaceX launched its satellite internet service Starlink in the country in February, enabling access to GIDAs at a one-time hardware fee of P29,320 and monthly service fee of P2,700.

In his second SONA, Mr. Marcos underscored the role of digital transformation in improving the ease of doing business and combating corruption.

He said that mobile and broadband internet speeds have improved and will undergo further upgrades, with a priority on GIDAs.

The Philippines ranked 83rd out of 140 countries in June for mobile internet performance, with a download speed of 26.98 megabits per second (Mbps), according to the global network testing firm Ookla. This speed is below the global average of 42.92 Mbps.

“There is a clear need to prioritize the provision of telecommunication and internet services in GIDAs,” Mr. Gustilo said.

“We see Executive Order (EO) 32 as a welcome development to this matter,” he added.

EO 32 was issued this month to streamline the permitting process for the construction of telecommunications infrastructure in the country.

“No other national or local permit or clearance shall be required in the construction, installation, repair, operation, and maintenance of telecommunications and Internet infrastructure,” the EO said.

The President also touted the National Fiber Backbone and Broadband ng Masa projects, aiming to deliver high-speed connectivity.

The National Fiber Backbone, which consists of five phases, is still awaiting completion of its first phase, which involves activating 28 fiber nodes in 12 provinces between the cities of Laoag and Quezon, as of November of last year, according to the DICT.

As of February, the Broadband ng Masa has established 4,385 operational live sites in 73 provinces, including Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi (BaSuLTa), and Pag-asa Island in the province of Palawan.

DLSU’s Mr. San Juan also said that any talk of digital transformation will be incomplete without proactive plans for achieving total national electrification.

According to Mr. Marcos, complete electrification of the country is now within reach. But there are still 68 connections for the unified national grid delayed, according to the Energy Regulatory Commission’s count.

“High electricity prices coupled with expensive, and still relatively slow, internet, any Filipino’s dream for digital transformation will remain dreams,” Mr. Marcos said. “Or they will just come true for certain segments of Philippine society, such as those who have money for premium services.”

Mr. Marcos also highlighted the eGov PH app as the single and centralized mobile app for public convenience but did not elaborate on reliability concerns such as data privacy, crashes, and maintenance.

“The government should ensure that the information passing through e-governance platforms are protected at all times,” Mr. Gustilo said.

“Proper training for personnel involved in the maintenance and operation of government platforms should also be provided to avoid data compromise.”

Areas that the government should focus on digitalizing are those typically beset with red tape and corruption, said Terry L. Ridon, convenor of Infrawatch Philippines, in a Viber message.

Mr. Ridon cited the Bureau of Customs as an institution that continues to fail in fully digitalizing its services despite Republic Act 10863 or the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act.

“Full digitalization processes should be able to deter smuggling activities, including technical smuggling, as human intervention into transactions is severely minimized,” he said.

“Funding in Customs digitalization should translate into better revenues to government and better prices to consumers.”