Virgilio L. Peña is the Chairman of the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT), a Cabinet-ranked position reporting directly to the President of the Philippines. Prior to this, he was Undersecretary for Information and Communications Technology of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) of the Republic of the Philippines. The Commission on ICT, created by Executive Order of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is a transitory body, anticipating the formation of the Department of ICT, which is awaiting congressional legislation. It is tasked with the development of ICT in the country. Secretary Peña was with the private sector prior to joining government service in June 2001 as Presidential Assistant for ICT under the Office of the President. He spent most of his professional and business career in IBM where he eventually became the Country President and General Manager. He then moved on to San Miguel Corporation, the country’s largest food and beverage conglomerate, where he served as the President and Managing Director of San Miguel Brewing International in Hong Kong. Virgilio L. Peña is a graduate in Electrical Engineering from the California State Polytechnic University and the International Executive Program of Columbia University.
The Philippines is developing the policy, the legislative and the regulatory structures needed to build a citizen-oriented Information Society. Among the questions they seek to resolve is whether technology drives the market and government policy or whether policy drives technology and the market. The Philippine Government believes that policy should rule. The country’s policies focus upon combating the many divides - the literacy divide, the health care divide, the educational divide, etc. - that hold back the country’s and its citizens’ development.
Appreciating the value of technology driven regulation, the Philippines has moved towards aligning national policies and regulations to the fast pace that ICT technologies have been experiencing these past years. This is particularly relevant when we see the convergence of information technology with telecommunications. In addressing policy or regulation driven by technology, the issue of which drives which becomes relevant. This is evident when we also talk about what drives the market. Is it technology driving the market or is it the market driving technology? The premise of my article is that there is a tendency for technology being the driver and that more focus should be given first to determining what the market needs before the appropriate technology is used. This would also apply to the argument on whether it is technology that drives regulation or should it be the other way around. For the past two years, the Philippines has maintained its course in implementing its ICT plans and programmes which include institutional strengthening, capacity building and an enabling framework to address the challenges of building a citizen-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society. We have integrated all the functions of government that relate to information technology and telecommunications under a single entity, the Commission on Information and Communications Technology. This allowed for a more focused approach in the development of a converged strategy for ICT development, including the consolidation of regulatory functions of government such as postal services. Priority is likewise given to the development of online applications that will provide opportunities to all sectors of society, including those who are marginalized and disadvantaged. The online applications include: • An application that will standardize public access points as the single delivery mechanism for government services; • Access to online health information and services, • Expert’s advice on common rural diseases; • A collaboration between government and private industry integrating ICT in basic education curricula; • And, an information service on job-matching and opportunities for qualified individuals. e-Government initiatives To jumpstart these initiatives, we have instituted an e-Government Fund, our government’s effort to provide funding for ICT projects that are citizen-centric and integrate critical frontline services. For the eight million Filipinos working overseas, we are developing a system that would interconnect 12 government agencies involved in generating documents that are normally required prior to working in another country. We are also undertaking e-government projects that complement our efforts in the delivery of social services. One of these is a system that will improve the agricultural and fisheries sectors through ICT by giving e-commerce capabilities to agricultural entrepreneurs, farmers and fisher folks. These initiatives, together with our earlier activities, have contributed to the accelerated growth of our mobile users to 35 million and our Internet users from three million in 2002 to 11 million at the last count this year. Taking advantage of the more than 40 per cent teledensity of mobile telephones in the country, we have extended e-government to m-government utilizing SMS; this provides relevant information and government services to citizens and serves, as well, as a vehicle for e-democracy. We have made progress in further liberalizing our telecommunications sector. We recently classified Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP as a value-added service rather than a basic telecommunications services requiring a franchise. We have issued rules and regulations on the allocation and assignment of 3G and broadband wireless access, BWA frequency bands to further open up the market and encourage competition. Our recognition of the need to achieve universal, ubiquitous, equitable and affordable access to ICT infrastructure was translated into a Philippine Broadband Plan and Strategy made possible by the International Telecommunication Union’s technical assistance and with the active collaboration of our multi-stakeholders partners. In almost all global fora, much has been said about bridging the proverbial digital divide. In fact it has been talked about, discussed, and debated extensively as the ultimate solution to a country’s national development. It has also been used as a factor to classify global economies into different stages of development. The wider the divide, the farther away a developing economy is in relation to the more developed ones. In fact, in a way, bridging this divide has become an aspiration of many developing economies. It is as if narrowing or even eliminating the divide has been the goal that many countries are pursuing, be it in terms of broadband deployment, Internet penetration, or the number of communities which are wired and connected. It is time, however, to step back and assess whether we are confusing bridging the digital divide as the end rather than just the means to achieve an end. The truth is, bridging the digital divide is just the means to bridge the other divides which confront our society today, whether it is in a developing economy like ours or even a developed economy like the United States, as was so vividly depicted in the hurricane Katrina aftermath in New Orleans. These divides are common in many societies - within themselves or relative to others. It is as if every sector in a society has built divides separating one from the other. Economic divide In every society on earth, this divide exists. It is reflected in the economic capability of an individual to cope with his and his family’s needs. What can ICT or the use of ICT do to help bridge this divide. Let’s take the example of a fisherman. A fisherman works all day to make a living to support his family. He probably earns two dollars a day selling his catch of the day. How can we use technology to improve the income that he earns from a day’s work? If he knew which part of the bay at this time of the week would yield a better catch because of weather and tidal conditions, he would have more time to fish because he would not have to waste time looking for the spot and could probably catch twice as much during the day. This means he will earn four dollars instead of two. Perhaps if he could sell his fish directly to the village market instead of selling them to a middleman, he could earn eight dollars instead four. This is the whole idea behind our Community eCenter in the local town hall. It will allow him to access weather and tidal information. It will also give him the price of sea bass in the market. Why then is this not happening? All we needed to do was to give him access to the Internet, but we just could not convince the fisherman to visit the Community eCentre. First of all, he is illiterate. He cannot read or write. In all likelihood, the only electronic device he has operated in his life is a transistor radio. The challenge of bridging the digital divide is to understand how we can get this fisherman to go to the computer in his local center so he can earn four times more than what he is earning now. First we need to motivate him to go to the center. What drives our young people now in the Philippines, all three million of them, to spend hours in Internet cafés? Online gaming! We need to find a killer application which, similarly, will attract the busy farmer to go out of his way to spend time in the Internet Centre. The second challenge is how we make it easier for him to use the computer. Will he be comfortable with the QWERTY keyboard in front of him? He cannot read the letters and even if he did, he doesn’t understand what the word ‘ENTER’ means. Both visually and physically impaired people can operate computers effectively. This is because there are devices designed for their use and middleware that allows them to access Windows. Perhaps we need to invest in special keyboards and middleware to make it easier for an illiterate farmer to access weather information and e-commerce portals on the Internet. So the answer to bridging the digital divide goes beyond just installing computers and connecting to broadband. We need to focus our programmes in the other areas which are equally, or even more, important. Other societal divides How do we deliver social services to remote communities and bridge the gap to make quality healthcare available? One of the initiatives being undertaken is Buddyworks. Buddyworks allows the staff at rural health centres to consult specialists at the Philippine General Hospital. Higher-quality education is also being addressed by transcribing all the courseware of the Philippine Science High School into a digitized interactive format, so that it can be transmitted using e-learning software to all the public high schools now equipped with Internet-connected computer labs. There are as many divides as there are sectors in a society: gender, generation, marginalized, etc. If we are to rise above the divides into an Information Society that is inclusive, where opportunities are made available to all, we need to address ways to bridge all of these divides. Going back to the original question about which drives which, we have taken the approach that we should let the market drive technology and not the other way around. We have proven that for technology to be sustainable, it has to be designed based on the requirement of the market, which in the cases described in this article, includes the farmers, fishermen and students of our country. The same premise holds true in policy development. We need to develop policies and regulations adapted to the needs of our stakeholders. Only after we do this do we adopt the technology which will enable us to satisfy their needs.