Secretary Gregorio B. Honasan’s first 12 months as Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) chief

When former Senator Gregorio B. Honasan II assumed office as lead implementer of the national information and communications technology (ICT) agenda in July 1 last year, he assured the public of one thing: bolstered connectivity in the Philippines.

“The president’s marching orders for the DICT is to provide connectivity,” Honasan said. “Connect the government to other governments, domestic and global; government to businesses; government to citizens; and everybody to each other. We must do this in a faster, cheaper, if not free, and more secure manner.”

To fulfill President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s directive to the Department, a day after he took his oath, Honasan began the mass roll-out of free Internet access points in hospitals in the National Capital Region (NCR) through the revamped Free Wi-Fi for All Program.

“Mahalaga kasi na malaman ng mga mahal natin sa buhay, iyong kamag-anak na nasa ibang lugar, yung kalagayan ng kanilang mga anak at kakilala na dinadala rito para naman panatag ang kalooban nila, at para may komunikasyon rin sila sa mga doktor,” Honasan said in an interview.

In Honasan’s first two weeks, the DICT provided free Wi-Fi to Quirino Memorial Medical Center (QMMC), V. Luna Medical Center, East Avenue Medical Center, and the Philippine Children’s’ Medical Center. This deployment was expanded to include other hospitals around the country, particularly in rural areas.  

Complementing this initiative, the DICT further established free Internet hotspots in different regions in the Philippines by partnering with local government units (LGUs).

In September last year, the DICT and the City of San Juan collaborated in rolling out Internet hotspots with 400 mbps bandwidth in barangay and multi-purpose halls, basketball courts, barangay health centers, and public schools. San Juan City was the pilot city for the initiative.  

This partnership demonstrated how working together could result in faster implementation of projects. In the ensuing months, the province of Zambales and the cities of Dagupan in Pangasinan and Angeles in Pampanga signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the DICT for the implementation of the Free Wi-Fi for All Program.

Honasan led the DICT in simultaneously reaching 17 regions with the program, launching 23 sites last October as part of his first 100 days in office.

This was followed by the activation of 31 free Wi-Fi sites in the provinces of Albay, Isabela, Lanao Del Sur, Palawan, and the city of Davao last March 2020.

The DICT earlier provided free Internet access to 184 citizens of the remote island of Pag-asa in the Kalayaan Group of Islands. Some residents reportedly used the connection to look for alternative opportunities for livelihood, as well as for enhancing students’ learning and education.

As of July 1, 2020, 1,582 free Wi-Fi sites had gone live within Honasan’s first year as DICT Secretary. This is out of a total of 4,195 Free Wi-Fi live sites across the Philippines.

“The sites will contribute to the development of localities, particularly unserved and underserved local communities,” Honasan said. “Data is the new oil. Access to data has become a right, along with access to food, clothing, shelter, education, and health services. It will change the game, and it will change the lives of our people.”

Public Wi-Fi for emergency response

Honasan’s first month in office was met by an early and unexpected challenge when a string of earthquakes hit Itbayat, Batanes on July 27, 2019.  

It was followed three months after by more earthquakes in Mindanao Island in October 2019. In December, Typhoon Tisoy pounded Southern Luzon and other parts of the country. A month later, Taal Volcano erupted, displacing hundreds of families within the danger zone.  

Mandated by Republic Act No. 10844, or the “Department of Information and Communications Technology Act of 2015,” to “assist in the dissemination of vital information essential to disaster risk reduction through the use of ICT,” the DICT installed free Wi-Fi access points in command centers, emergency facilities, and evacuation centers in disaster-stricken areas to provide information and communication relief to first-responders and internally displaced persons (IDPs)

 “Communication and access to information are crucial to disaster relief,”Honasan said. “Tuwing may kalamidad, ang una nating tinatanong ay kung may kuryente ba. Ang dapat na tinatanong natin ay kung may contact ba, may communication ba. Sa pamamagitan nito, malalaman natin kung anong mga lugar at kung sinong mga tao ang pinaka-nangangailangan ng tulong.”

ICT for the new normal

Among the challenges faced by the country this past year, the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been the most difficult. ICT has become an indispensable resource, ensuring unhampered and secure connectivity for the Filipino people.

As part of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID), the DICT has strengthened connectivity, cybersecurity, digital literacy, and ICT capacity programs to help the government mitigate the effects of the health crisis and assist the nation in its transition back to normalcy.

DICT kept active its free Wi-Fi sites in more than 1,000 public hospitals, rural health units, and government offices, and installed new Free Wi-Fi hotspots in close to 60 COVID-19 quarantine and testing facilities and control centers across the country.   

The free Internet hotspots in these areas, according to Honasan, can be accessed by the public for both information and entertainment. These can also be used by front-liners for information and data exchange.

The DICT has continued providing Wi-Fi sites in remote LGUs, recently providing 20 hotspots in Isabela and Lamitan, Basilan.

As a long-term measure to boost connectivity in the Philippines, the DICT issued Department Circular (DC) No. 008, s. 2020, which provides guidelines on Shared Passive Telecommunications Tower Infrastructure or the Common Tower Policy.

This policy is expected to encourage the growth and development of independent tower companies (ITCs) as a pioneering sector for the development of a robust ICT environment in line with the overall objective of enhancing wireless network coverage and quality of ICT services across the country.

In a previous statement, Honasan said the finalization of the policy is a significant step in addressing the nation’s connectivity needs that have become more immediate because of the pandemic. He also said that the deployment of common towers, particularly in unserved and underserved areas, will improve not only Internet condition, but also socio-economic welfare through ICT, in support of the President’s Balik Probinsya, Balik Pag-Asa Program.

The DICT also aims to reduce the shared tower permit requirements by up to 52 percent this year, in view of Title V, Sections 20 to 25 of DC 008, s. 2020, and in compliance with Republic Act 11032 or the Ease of Doing Business and Efficient Government Service Delivery Act of 2018, which mandates streamlined procedures for government services.

The Department is working closely with the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) to facilitate this streamlining, and a Joint Memorandum Circular among the DICT, ARTA, Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), and Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development (DHSUD) is being finalized.

To strengthen cybersecurity in public service delivery, the DICT has offered its Philippine National Public Key Infrastructure (PNPKI) services to government agencies, education institutions, and the general public. Under the current community quarantine period, the DICT has issued 1,137 digital certificates. It has also performed cybersecurity validation on applications used such as the Rapid Pass, ReliefAgad, and Stay Safe.

Last June, the Department issued guidelines for a more systematic and standardized vetting and evaluation process for ICT services, products, or applications for government use in addressing COVID-19. The policy will ensure that current and future ICT services, products, and applications to be used by the government meet required standards while addressing potential concerns on data privacy, cybersecurity, and interoperability, among others.

Connecting governments, businesses, citizens

Filipinos’ digital literacy and ICT competency should also be given priority, Honasan said. “Kaakibat ng pagbibigay ng connectivity at pagsisiguro sa cybersecurity ang pagpapalawak ng kaalaman at kakayahan ng ating mga kababayan sa paggamit ng ICT.”

As part of this campaign, the DICT, through its ICT Literacy and Capacity Development Bureau (ILCDB), Cybersecurity Bureau, and Regional Clusters, has conducted 46 training sessions and webinars for the first half of 2020, which were participated in by teachers, students, government and private employees, and the general public.

Among the topics discussed were ICT tools and solutions in transitioning to digital or virtual education, maximizing ICT at work, cybersecurity, digital literacy, and “technopreneurship.”

In his first year in office, Honasan was able to lead the implementation of various programs and initiatives to connect government, businesses, and citizens.

One of these is the Central Business Portal (CBP), an online platform aimed at eliminating bureaucratic red tape and streamlining business registration processes in the Philippines.

Launched last October 2019, the CBP was developed to reduce long queues for physical transactions, as the applications are done online and completed in five days.

Complementing the CBP, the first location for the National Business One-Stop Shop (NBOSS) was launched February 2020 at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC). It is a joint initiative of the DICT and the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA), in partnership with other social service agencies.

NBOSS is a physical co-location where applicants can register their business and employees, submit documents, and avail of online services. It hosts key agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), Social Security System (SSS), Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth), and the Home Development Mutual Fund (Pag-IBIG).

The CBP is initially available at the NBOSS Outlet at the SEC Office in PICC. With CBP and NBOSS, business registration in the Philippines is expected to be completed in nine steps, within seven-and-a-half days—significantly less than the current estimate of 13 steps in 33 days.

The DICT signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) last January linking government agencies under the Philippine Justice Sector. This is in relation to the National Justice Information System (NJIS), an ICT platform to address fragmentation in the justice system by developing information management systems and inter-agency exchange mechanisms.

Providing interconnectivity down to the government frontlines and LGUs, the DICT, through its Accelerated Fiber Build component, was able to connect 792 agencies to 13 government network sites, the most recent of which is in Zamboanga, where 56 national government agencies (NGAs), 12 LGU offices, six government-owned or controlled corporations (GOCCs), three state universities and colleges (SUCs), two public schools, and four COVID-19 facilities were provided with Internet connectivity through the GovNet Project.

According to Honasan, GovNet uses fiber optic technology to provide government offices with high speed broadband connection by connecting government agencies to a data center that is operational and secured 24/7.

“The use of fiber optics allows transfer of large amounts of data, which results in more responsive and transparent government online services,” he said. “With GovNet, the delivery of services is expected to become faster and more efficient as government agencies become interconnected, their functions integrated, and their operations interoperable.”

The DICT has successfully tested 158 dark fiber segments of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) for the National Broadband Program (NBP). The construction of the cable landing stations in Baler, Aurora and Poro Point, La Union was completed in 2019.

“This backbone shall cover the entire Philippines, complemented by undersea cables and ICT infrastructures across the country,” Honasan explained.

The next two years

As the country continues to fight COVID-19, the DICT has adjusted its programs to strengthen the country’s adaptation to new landscapes due to the pandemic—the National ICT Agenda in the New Normal.

The DICT is implementing programs and initiatives in four areas: ICT-enabled government, ICT capacity development, greater public reach, and safer, protected, and reliable ICT. 

The DICT aims to help the national government and LGUs to quickly adopt electronic services through reliable and secure connectivity, cloud hosting, collaboration tools, and video conferencing applications, as well as digital certificates. These go hand-in-hand with DICT’s provision of technical support and expertise to facilitate efficient and effective Government to Government (G2G), Government to Business (G2B), and Government to Citizen (G2C) electronic services

In addition, the DICT provides Project Management, IT Service Management, and IT Change Management service for IT departments of government agencies.

For ICT capacity development, the DICT is assisting the Department of Education (DepEd), the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) in the use of digital learning tools by introducing learning and school management systems and helping them set up digital learning content.

Complementing this initiative, the DICT aims to set up its own digital learning content for the ICT Academy, where government agencies, teachers, and the general public can enroll to be trained in various ICT skills for work and education.

The Department is strengthening its Tech4ED and digital transformation centers nationwide to accommodate students wanting to avail of free Internet and use of computers and laptops to access learning materials and school work.

Under the same thrust, the DICT aims to upgrade the skills of the Filipino workforce, particularly those in the provinces, through the Department’s digital transformation centers. The DICT endeavors to provide digital jobs to Filipinos and support the gig economy, in addition to providing continuous support to the Information Technology and Business Process Management (IT-BPM) industry.

For greater public reach, the Department assists LGUs in establishing themselves as digital cities and provinces by expanding the ICT and IT-BPM industries in these regions. These, Honasan said, will help achieve balanced regional development in support of the government’s Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-Asa program.

Last June 30, the DICT launched the Digital Cities 2025 Program where 25 digital cities were identified as potential sites outside Metro Manila for IT-BPM investments.

These 25 new Digital Cities shall be transformed into ICT hubs to serve as business and innovation centers, and will receive support from the government and the private sector to ensure that each location reaches its potential.

Still under greater public reach, the DICT is partnering with the Department of Health (DOH) and the DILG to provide medical services, such as telemedicine, remote diagnostics, and virtual medical consultations in far-flung areas. The Department is also working with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in expediting the distribution of the social amelioration program through the use of ICT.

For a safer, protected, and reliable ICT, the Department continues to upgrade its connectivity programs, such as the Free Wi-Fi for all Program, the National Broadband Program, and its Emergency Communications initiative. The Department is also expediting the roll-out of cybersecurity management platforms in all the 12 critical information infrastructures (CIIs), as identified in the DICT’s National Cybersecurity Plan 2022. The DICT will put up security operations command centers in key government agencies, particularly those covering the 12 CIIs, and invest in capacity building and training for various sectors and the general public.

The task at hand

In the four years since its establishment as a Department in 2016, DICT’s role has never been as important as it is now.

Faced with the responsibility of leading the national ICT agenda during the pandemic, Honasan is optimistic that the Department’s programs and initiatives will lay the groundwork for digital transformation during and even beyond the health crisis.

“We hope to maximize ICT in aiding the nation’s transition to new living and working conditions, laying the necessary groundwork for a better normal,” Honasan said.

“There’s no way of knowing when this pandemic will end, but on the part of DICT, we will continue to exhaust every means to fulfill our mandate as the lead Department in implementing the national ICT agenda and assist the government in this battle. With that, we are calling upon the public’s support in the coming months and years. Together, we can overcome this crisis.”