The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) is set to lead government digital transformation to urgently respond to the multi-sectoral call for enhanced public service delivery and improved Internet access under the new normal.

The need for better e-governance systems was also emphasized by Senator Christopher “Bong” Go as the country undertakes measures to eradicate the COVID-19 threat. This is also in keeping with his earlier call for swifter government transformation to efficiently address new normal demands.

“Digitalization of the government is the goal of the DICT from the very beginning—from the moment it was conceptualized and institutionalized through the enactment of RA 10844,” said DICT Secretary Gregorio Honasan II. “This statement of the good senator could not be any timelier—it aligns with the president’s marching orders for the Department to connect government to government; government to businesses; government to citizens; and everybody to each other,” Secretary Honasan added.

The Department has a roadmap for digitalization, but it will require robust and wide-reaching ICT infrastructure buildup. The DICT will be focusing on its four-point agenda with the following key objectives: (1) Safer, Protected, and Reliable ICT, (2) ICT-Enabled Government, (3) Greater Public Reach, and (4) ICT Capacity Development.

OIC – Undersecretary for Special Concerns, Emmanuel Rey Caintic, explained the four (4)-point agenda as the objectives of the overarching “Digital Philippines” vision upon which the DICT’s programs for digitalization are now anchored on—which means a Philippines where information and communication technology is embedded in how governance is handled, how public services are delivered, how the population is educated, and how industries work, among others.

The vision of a Digital Philippines will be realized with solutions tailored after the Department’s identified four (4) components of the national ICT agenda. Chief among these efforts is redesigning public services to be more efficient by revisiting our long-term digitalization efforts to reflect reforms for greater public reach enabled by accelerated ICT infrastructure buildup.

To this end, the Department is focusing on two (2) of its major programs for ICT infrastructure buildup: the National Broadband Program (NBP) and the Free Wi-Fi for All Program.

On one hand, the NBP aims to improve internet speed through increased broadband capability for broader, faster, and more affordable access for Filipinos. The Department is fast-tracking the activities for this program for the remainder of 2020 until 2021. These target activities include the operations and maintenance of the two (2) cable landing stations, four (4) repeater stations and a 240 km fiber highway, and an accelerated fiber build by providing Fiber Optic Cable (FOC) connectivity to six (6) GovNet projects in 2020 and fourteen (14) in 2021—totaling one thousand two hundred seventy three (1,273) agencies connected by the end of 2021.

On the other hand, the Free Wi-Fi for All Program shall enhance internet accessibility to bridge the digital divide and bolster socio-economic opportunities for the public. The Department targets a total of ten thousand sixty nine (10,069) live sites by the end of 2020, with two thousand five hundred eighty eight (2,588) sites to be established in government hospitals and rural health sites to help efforts on the COVID-19 recovery front. For 2021, a total of twenty three thousand one hundred (23,100) sites is targeted. The Free Wi-Fi for All Program also adapted its implementation to the most pressing need during the pandemic—installing around fifty (50) government designated quarantine facilities nationwide with Internet to provide connectivity for both patients and doctors in these areas.

Recent reports show that the private sector is also ramping up their strategies to bolster connectivity services, as the demand for quality Internet access in the country amid the public health emergency continues to surge. Both telecommunications companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are focusing on providing unhampered Internet services while considering options to maximize market opportunities to fund accelerated network buildup.

“It all comes to a head with the strong need to invest in ICT infrastructure development to truly meet new normal requirements,” Secretary Honasan said. “Once we have the basics of high-speed Internet access laid down; economic productivity, innovation, inclusion and better e-governance shall follow,” he added.

In view of this, the Department is looking to acquire PHP 46,645,238,000.00 for Fiscal Year 2021 to fund vital priority programs to respond to the immediate needs of the people under the new normal. The proposed 2021 budget is based off five (5) key strategic programs to drive swifter digital transformation in government: (1) Digital Connectivity and Access, (2) Digital Government, (3) Digital Education and Digital Workforce, (4) Digital Cities and Provinces, and (5) Cybersecurity.

The Digital Connectivity and Access component, which encompasses the NBP, Free Wi-Fi for All, and Government Emergency Communications System (GECS), are estimated to  require a budget of Php 13,491,357,000.00, Php 7,793,022,000.00, and Php 833,289,000.00 for each of the programs respectively, to focus on building and enhancing the existing digital infrastructure in the country.

For the Digital Government, the DICT aims to promote information exchange and to improve the efficiency and accessibility of front-end public services and to boost the overall user experience of the citizens availing of said services. This component shall focus on recalibration efforts in line with the recommendations of the NEDA-led Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) Technical Working Group (TWG) for Anticipatory and Forward Planning (AFP) “We Recover as One Report”. It shall require a total budget of 10,603,662,000.00.

Under the Digital Education and Digital Workforce component, the Department aims to improve citizens’ access to digital opportunities through ICT capacity development. Initiatives under this agenda will involve inter-agency collaborations, particularly with the education sector to connect schools, colleges, and universities to enable the implementation of online and blended learning systems for the upcoming school year 2020-2021. It will require a total budget of Php 10,247,090,000.00.

The Department shall also establish the Digital Cities and Digital Provinces Program, is in line with Executive Order No. 114 or the “BalikProbinsya, BalikPag-asa Program” of the national government. The Digital Cities and Digital Provinces Program consist of initiatives to help boost the local economy and to strengthen local governance systems, and will require a budget of Php55,182,000.00

Finally, the Department shall develop a strong Cybersecurity capability in order to promote safer, protected and reliable ICT, and to protect the systems of the country’s Critical Information Infrastructure (CII). The greater need for online transactions is making people more prone to cyber risks, and there is an urgent need for cybersafe infostructure and governance to address these risks. This component will require a total budget of Php 1,054,341,000.00.

The excess of the proposed budget after allocation to these five (5) key aspects will be utilized for the DICT’s internal institutional reforms and organizational development to leverage digital technologies, infrastructure, and competencies to move forward under the new normal situation.

The Department’s proposed budget was made with all the above considerations in mind, and with Digital Philippines vision set as the end goal. Digital transformation is realized through the interoperation of these components, and each one is no less important to institute the objectives of the four (4)-point national ICT agenda.

This digital transformation, however, foresees the need for resources, sound strategies and agile management styles as crucial factors in addressing the far-reaching changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the Department of Public Works and Highways was allotted a budget of Php 581.7 billion to advance national infrastructure buildup. In comparison, the DICT was allotted a total of Php 5,733,485,000.00 that covers all its programs including infrastructure, services and its operations.

On the other hand, the private sector demonstrates that it also recognizes the need for ICT infrastructure investment, as reports showed that telco giants PLDT Inc. and Globe ramped up their spending for 2020. PLDT initially allotted Php 83 billion for its 2020 spending budget, and Globe set a capex of Php 63 billion for the same year.

“We need information highways and ICT networks just as much as we need physical infrastructures to move forward. With this, the Department is poised to pursue needed resources and structural adjustments to make sure that these resources will be optimized for driving forward digital transformation in the country,” Secretary Honasan said.

“These efforts will surely bring forth the change that Senator Bong Go and all of us collectively envision for a better new normal. We reiterate our utmost support to realize the national ICT agenda, and we are optimistic in the attainability of the goals of digitalization, in the middle of extreme urgency, under the strong leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte,” he asserted.