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Despite the increased difficulty in securing maintenance and upgrade work for several cell sites due to restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and infrastructure damage due to the onslaught of typhoons, the Philippines was still able to record all-time high internet speed and downloads last year, on the back of aggressive directives given by the government to internet service providers to improve their broadband services. 

Data from Ookla, the company behind the Speedtest application, showed that download speeds in the country through broadband improved by 297.47% as of December 2020. Meanwhile, the Philippines logged in a 202.41% increase in speeds for mobile internet. 

These figures show significant improvement in the country’s internet speeds when compared with those recorded during July 2016. The average download speed for fixed and mobile broadband then was at 7.91 megabits per second (Mbps) and 7.44 Mbps, respectively. 

Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index released in 2020 also depicted that internet speeds showed a slight improvement in November, bringing the country’s ranking to the 110th spot out of a list of 160 countries. The Philippines recorded 18.49 Mbps during that month, slightly faster than speeds of 17.83 Mbps cited in October. 

To further compare, in December 2020 alone, the average download speeds for both fixed and mobile internet increased to 31.44 Mbps and 22.50 Mbps. Likewise, telecommunications companies reported prior to the Ookla report that there was a 500% increase in data usage during the first few months of the quarantine period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Encouraging development in broadband infrastructure 

The improvement in broadband services last year is part of the initiatives laid out early on by the Philippine government. During his State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte urged telecommunications companies in the Philippines to ramp up their internet services before year-end. 

The government also heeded the call of broadband providers for local government units to speed up the granting of permits to build cellular towers. Internet service provider Globe Telecom stated through its counsel: “Previously, we needed to wait and spend years to complete at least 29 permits. But with the help of the Bayanihan To Recover as One Act, LGUs are now enabled to become more open and supportive of our network roll-outs, especially in the past weeks.” 

Another broadband provider, Smart Communications. also announced that it is looking at a rollout of 2,000 additional cell sites this year.  The Department of Informations and Communications Technology (DICT) lauded the effort of the national government to ramp up connectivity services. These services, the department explained, are vital in helping the Filipino population adapt to the new normal. 

In line with this, the DICT stated that it is doubling its efforts to implement the National Broadband Programme (NBP). The NBP, one of the flagship ventures of the DICT, is expected to amplify the goals of the government to move towards digital transformation by making internet connectivity accessible by people all over the Philippines, especially those in far-flung areas. 

DICT Secretary Gregorio Honasan II expressed confidence that Filipinos will start to “feel the effects of the said initiative” as early as this year. This statement comes after the government approved a bigger budget for the DICT in anticipation of the implementation of the NBP. 

As previously reported by OpenGov Asia, the allotted fund for the NBP in 2021 was doubled to PHP 1.9 billion (US$ 39.5 million), from the PHP 903.194 million (US$ 18.8 million) earlier proposed by members of Congress. This funding is on top of allocations for DICT’s free Wi-Fi project pursuant to Republic Act 10929 or the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act. 

The Philippines has recorded a stellar finish in 2020 characterized by a fast rollout of broadband infrastructure pursuant to initiatives of ramping up digital transformation in the country. 

The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) in a statement said that it has put up 4,305 live broadband sites by the end of last year under its Free Wi-Fi for All Programme or the FW4A. This figure is a 500% jump when compared with data logged in during the past four years under the programme. 

According to its breakdown, the DICT said that it has set up more than 3,000 live sites in three years starting 2016. Currently, the total number of broadband sites launched is at 7,556 on the back of a surge of new sites put up last year.  

DICT Secretary Gregorio Honasan II emphasised that the good results under the FW4A project are in line with the government’s goals of boosting the Filipinos’ connection with the government and the world through internet services. Thus, the Department is moving quickly to expand its operations. He added: “[F]rom day one, we immediately went into analyzing factors that may speed-up the implementation and applied the needed reforms.” 

The DICT noted that the FW4A has been revalidated and redesigned so that procuring network components and transacting with suppliers for materials can be more seamless. By reinventing its existing platforms, the department said it was able to maximise its budget spending. It also noted that the availability of the 2019 national budget was extended until the end of 2020 due to the delays in passing the 2019 General Appropriation Act. 

“As a result, the DICT managed to utilize around 93.89% of its FW4A budget for 2019. The overall utilization rate of the Department’s total 2019 budget is now approximately 80% as of December 31, 2020,” the DICT added. 

The FW4A is a flagship programme under the DICT. This project aims to expand free internet access to public spaces, especially those located in regional areas. It tries to meet this goal through the installation of Wi-Fi sites in several key locations.  

This project was launched under Republic Act 10929 otherwise known as the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act. The Act, signed into law in 2015, provides that free internet services shall be made available in areas including national and local government offices, public education institutions, state universities and colleges, public hospitals and health centres, airports and public transport terminals. 

Maximum internet service shall be ensured in key places like computer laboratories and libraries within basic education facilities. Internet service shall likewise be maintained at its maximum in main lobbies of public buildings and offices. Free Wi-Fi signages were also provided under the Free Wi-Fi Act. 

Apart from the Free Wi-Fi project, the department stressed it is in the process of rehabilitating its facilities and equipment so that it can diversify into future undertakings. The DICT also mentioned that it is regularising the majority of people under its overall workforce. 

The DICT has been on the receiving end of massive support from the government as the latter aims to sustain its momentum in leveraging digital technology to boost operations. The government has announced in a recent report by OpenGov Asia that the 2021 budget allocation for the DICT has been increased. This unprecedented move is set to fast-track the implementation of the department’s National Broadband Project. Under this programme, the DICT undertakes to expand internet connectivity in the country, particularly in remote places.  

The Philippines’ overall budget for 2021 is PHP 4.5 trillion (US$ 93.6 billion). A total of PHP 1.9 billion (US$ 39.5 million) was allocated for the DICT. 

More government agencies in Indonesia are basing their strategies with digitalisation in a bid to scale up existing programmes and provide enhanced services to the public. This year, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology announced that it is focusing on frequency spectrum management to boost its services. The Ministry explained that this initiative is part of efforts to accelerate digital transformation not just within the department but in various sectors in the country as well. 

According to Dr Ir. Ismail, the Ministry’s Director General of Resources and Equipment of Post and Information Technology, innovations in spectrum management are essential units that can help drive digital transformation. During a recent virtual meeting, he said: “[T]his frequency spectrum management is one of the backbones of national digital connectivity via mobile broadband.”  

The Director General added that meticulous regulation by the government of frequency spectrums is a key step in amplifying innovative solutions. Frequency allocations must be done carefully and allotted to corporations based on their needs. Elaborating, he confirmed that the agency has adjusted frequencies during the past two years. Their basis for frequency allocation is the type of technology a frequency lessee is using. This way, the agency can be assured that the amount of frequency given to such a corporation will be the right fit based on its needs. 

The aggressive initiative to adopt this new technology is reinforced by the multiple benefits that the government will reap once this innovation has been adopted. The Director General explained that “the presence of new technologies such as 5G is also a factor that encourages the agency to regulate frequency appropriately. So that, in the future, people all over the world can use quality telecommunication networks in their activities”. 

He added that initiatives toward innovation have positive impacts in all sectors of the economy and the society in general. He said that technology can usher in more productive activities once they have been implemented. One of these activities is the development of Indonesia’s digital economy. When a 5G telecommunication network is adopted, the nation can improve its business and investment climate.  The Indonesian government has been scaling up efforts in the past years to boost and roll out 5G technology in the country by tapping into its existing band and wave spectrum. The government has also announced that it has started its bidding for 5G internet services last year.

Apart from plans to integrate 5G technology, several key innovations have since been launched in Indonesia following government-led initiatives to adhere to digitalisation and the Making Indonesia 4.0 blueprint. Under this roadmap, the government aims to boost key industries in its economy to usher in an industrial era. It listed five sectors to be prioritised, namely: food and drinks, automotive, textile, chemicals and the electronics industries. 

To accelerate improvements in these industries and boost economic growth in the long term, the government is banking on the adoption of digital technology. As earlier reported by OpenGov Asia, the Ministry of Industry announced that it is optimistic that economic growth will reach 5.5% in 2021, on the back of its strong digital economy programme.  

To further spur economic growth, Indonesia is set to continue the implementation of various policies and legislations, including the Job Creation Law and the National Economic Recovery programme. The Indonesian government has also announced that tech giants have been expressing interest to invest in the country amid the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It added that this interest to invest is due to ease in doing business in the country and because of its robust digital economic framework. 

To sustain its momentum in its digital transformation, the Philippines is set to partner with another Asian economy to drive growth in its technology and banking sectors. Department of Finance (DoF) Secretary Carlos Dominguez III announced in a statement that he has been in talks with Indian Ambassador to the Philippines, Shambhu Kumaran, to strengthen the two countries’ economic ties in improving digital technology and developing infrastructure. 

Speaking through a virtual courtesy call, the two officials were one in saying that both countries are “poised to bounce back” from the economic impact of the pandemic. They also agreed that the benefits of strengthening the two nations’ economic cooperation are many. 

The ambassador expressed India’s interest to solidify its existing cooperation with the Philippines, particularly in the field of banking and finance. This is in line with goals earlier set by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte of attaining financial inclusivity for Filipinos. To do this, he explained that India can assist the Philippines in setting up and improving its national broadband network. India is also intent on providing tech assistance to the Philippines once the latter rolls out its national ID system. 

The Finance Secretary showed interest in the planned cooperation with India and encouraged Indian businesses to invest under a cyber defence framework designed to streamline operations of state-run banks and other subsidiaries in the Philippines. 

The Secretary also showed appreciation for India’s offer of assistance in accelerating the Philippines’ digital transformation. He added that with these services, the Philippine government will be better equipped in fostering financial inclusion, in upgrading delivery of frontline public service and in putting a stop to corruption. 

The tech assistance services offered by the Indian government will be in line with the Philippines’ initiative to boost its broadband services. As previously reported by OpenGov Asia, a big chunk of the Philippines’ budget for 2021 has been allotted for the development of the Department of Information and Communications Technology’s (DICT) National Broadband Programme (NBP). 

Of the PHP 4.5 trillion (US$ 93.7 billion) national budget this year, the funding for the NBP was recorded to be at PHP 1.9 billion (US$ 39.5 million). This was a significant increase from the initial PHP 903.19 million (US$ 18.8 million) budget allocation for the NBP. 

Investments in infrastructure 

The Ambassador likewise said that more Indian firms are looking at investing in the Philippines and taking part in the government’s “Build, Build, Build” (BBB) programme. However, he was quick to add that these potential investors still need more information regarding possible business ventures that are available to them under this infrastructure modernisation plan. 

To address this issue, the Finance Secretary and the Ambassador agreed to launch a webinar or a virtual workshop. Through this platform, the Philippine government will be able to lay down investment opportunities available to Indian companies. 

To point out some of the key opportunities for investment in the Philippines, the DoF said that an Indian firm is already in partnership with the government under the Build, Build, Build Programme for the Mactan Cebu International Airport and in the Clark International Airport (CIA) projects. 

The BBB programme aims to address the infrastructure backlog in the Philippines by improving public infrastructure spending from 2.9% of the gross domestic product (GDP) to 7.3%. The government is estimating costs in implementing this framework to be at around PHP 8 trillion to PHP 9 trillion (US$ 166 billion to US$ 187.4 billion) from 2016 to 2022. Projects under this programme include Phase 1 of the CIA expansion and the New Clark City Food Processing Terminal and International Food Market 

5G mobile network is under commercial trial in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City. Vietnam is among the few countries in the world that have put 5G into trial use.

Nguyen Phong Nha, the Deputy Director of the Telecommunications Authority noted that Vietnam aims for nationwide 5G coverage by 2030. By that time, people will be able to access broadband Internet at low costs. To achieve the goal, the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) has built a telecommunication development strategy, setting targets for upgrading 4G infrastructure and commercialising 5G soon, a press release has explained.

To date, three network operators, namely Viettel, MobiFone, and VinaPhone, have licenses to provide 5G services on a trial basis. A representative of the Telecommunication Authority said that along with providing mobile network services, businesses can develop software and devices for 5G. This is a challenge but also an opportunity for Vietnam to join the terminal market.

The trial of 5G is an opportunity for network operators to build reasonable business models and anticipate costs before 5G services are officially licensed. After the trial period, network operators will have to submit reports on the results of the trial in terms of technical features, commercial potential, and market demand, so that MIC can perfect the legal basis.

Nha said the deployment of 5G in Vietnam will depend on market demand. 5G may not cover the entire country immediately. At first, it will be available in larger cities such as Hanoi, Da Nang, and HCM City. The cities have been chosen for 5G deployment because these are areas with a high density of mobile device users and high requirements on speed. Further, 5G may also be deployed in industrial zones and areas where there is a demand for smart factories. MIC hopes the services will be launched in 2021.

According to VinaPhone, technical experiments in Hanoi and HCM City showed that the download speed of 5G is ten times higher than 4G, while the latency is ten times lower. As for MobiFone, the network operator has finished the installation and is testing 5G speed. In standard conditions, the download speed is 1.3 Gbps. The speed is expected to increase.

According to Viettel, there are about 8,000 terminal devices compatible with 5G on its entire network. However, due to the narrow coverage area, only several hundred devices have been connected with the testing network. The average speed is 500-600 Mbps.

Apart from 5G trials, Viettel is joining forces with Vingroup to develop 5G broadcasting equipment. The equipment made locally accounts for 15% of total transceiver equipment being tried by the network operator.

The number of 5G subscribers nationwide is expected to reach a figure of 6.3 million by 2025, with the deployment of 5G services anticipated to help Vietnamese mobile service providers increase their annual revenue by US$300 million, as OpenGov Asia reported earlier.

To keep up with demand, Vietnam needs to invest between US$1.5 billion and US$2.5 billion in the technology over the next five years. The country will face several obstacles in terms of the cost of equipment and services, limited network coverage, and the adverse impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a press release, the Vietnamese government is pursuing an industry 4.0 strategy, with a specific focus on upgrading infrastructure, improving human resources, and deploying e-government services. E-commerce transformation is expected to boost the number of electronic firms to 43% over the next five years.

The number of 5G subscriptions in Vietnam is forecasted to reach 6.3 million by 2025, according to a report on 5G development in Southeast Asia.

According to a press release, Vietnam and Singapore are expected to be the first countries in the region to roll out the latest wireless communications technology in 2020-2021. The report noted that the market penetration in Vietnam in the early stage of 5G implementation will be lower than that in Indonesia and Thailand, but growth is projected to accelerate in the later stage.

The early launch of 5G services could help Vietnamese mobile carriers increase revenues by US$300 million a year, starting from 2025. However, they need to invest about US$1.5-2.5 billion in technology during the 2020-2025 period.

Last year, Vietnam’s e-government development index ranked 88th out of 193 countries, of which the online public services index jumped 10 places to rank 59th out of 193 countries in comparison to 2016. The Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) recently announced it has required network operators to upgrade mobile number portability rates to 80%. Statistics from the MIC showed that the number of successful network transfers from the beginning to the end of the third quarter of this year reached 77.3%.

Apart from developing a robust 5G infrastructure, the country is also working towards expanding fibre-optic Internet connectivity. Recently, the Vietnam Internet Association hosted Internet Day 2020, marking the 23rd year since Vietnam became part of the global internet network.

With the theme “Digital Transformation in Vietnam: From Aspiration to Reality”, the event’s discussions centred around cloud computing, 5G Services, e-payments and mobile money, blockchain, free and open-source software (FOSS), and “Make-in-Vietnam” digital technologies.

Speaking at the event, Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Huy Dung said 2020 marks the start of national digital transformation. Vietnam must seize the opportunities to promote faster, stronger, and broader digital transformation, with governmental bodies, enterprises, and the community together becoming engaged, he said.

Vietnam is among the top 20 countries with the highest number of internet users, according to Chairman of the Vietnam Internet Association Vu Hoang Lien. Internet Day 2020 aims to help stakeholders translate digital transformation goals into reality, he added.

The country’s digital economy reached US$14 billion this year, a year-on-year increase of 16%, making it among the best performers in the region. Its digital society index also saw a modest improvement this year, rising 12 points from 2019, according to a report from GSMA Intelligence.

To accelerate digital transformation, Vietnam needs to expand its Internet access and look towards universal Internet access, said Nguyen Trong Duong, Deputy Director of the Ministry of Information and Communications’ Computerisation Agency.

The country should also focus on developing national digital infrastructure to meet booming demand for the Internet of Things (IoT), smart devices, and machine-to-machine communications, growing digital platform ecosystems and expanding the national cyberspace by increasing “Make in Vietnam” digital platforms, he noted.

The Philippines is now anticipating better internet connectivity after Congress approved an increased budget to improve broadband services.

In a statement released on 13 December, the Philippine Congress announced that it has doubled the nation’s budget allocation for broadband services in an attempt to generate more jobs and scale-up internet connectivity even in remote parts of the country.

Senator Sonny Angara, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, stated that Congress has approved the overall national budget of PHP 4.5 trillion (US$ 93.6 billion) under the General Appropriations Bill Wednesday last week.

Of this amount, the funding for the Department of Information and Communications Technology’s (DICT) National Broadband Program (NBP) was doubled to PHP 1.9 billion (US$ 39.5 million). This was a massive increase from the PHP 903.194 million (US$ 18.8 million) earlier proposed in the National Expenditure Program.

This amount is on top of funding allotted for DICT’s undertaking to provide free Wi-Fi services in public places and state universities and colleges or SUCs. The budget for free Wi-Fi services was increased to PHP 250 million (US$) while the allocation for free internet in SUC’s also received more funding.

Republic Act 10929 or the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act mandates that free internet access in all government offices and public places shall be provided. The same directive is also given to academic institutions owned by the state. These services will be beneficial for students who have been continuously adapting to flexible and alternative methods of learning.

There is optimism that the country can expect better internet connectivity after the completion of the first phase of the NBP. He noted that there is now an added imperative to push for better internet infrastructure and emphasised the growing need to “also look at the actual internet infrastructure because that will provide greater investments”.

Generating more jobs and boosting the economy

Aside from improving the current state of internet connectivity in all areas in the Philippines, better broadband infrastructure means the possibility of more investments coming into the country. This is expected to generate “more high-paying jobs and stable economic activity”.

The legislator also said that the country has to have more reliable internet services which have become more urgent in light of the new normal posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another upside to investing in broadband infrastructure is that government expenses for internet services will be reduced considerably. The DICT explained through figures that every month, each government office now spends an average of PHP 350 (US$ 7.29) per Mbps of internet bandwidth. An agency consuming 100 Mbps of internet connection pays PHP 35,000 (US$ 728.5) every month for internet.

Upon the completion of the first phase of the NBP, the DICT estimates that the monthly internet expenses of an average size government agency would be decreased to PHP 5,000 (US$ 104). With these projected figures, the government can thus be expected to save PHP 720 million (US$ 14.9 million) during the first year of the adoption of the NBP.

The higher budget allotted for internet services comes after efforts were exerted by legislators in pushing for increased funding for the NBP. As reported by OpenGov Asia, legislators earlier asked for an allotment of PHP 5.9 billion (US$ 122.61 million) which would go to broadband services. Senator Grace Poe, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Services, stated in that report that this is the first time that spending on telecommunications services would be a part of the national budget, as most investments in broadband infrastructure in the Philippines have been made by businesses in the private sector.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), a government-owned organisation recently announced a breakthrough satellite-based NB-IoT (Narrow Band-Internet of Things) device, which can be used across India where there are no mobile towers.

The move is in partnership with Skylotech India and aims to digitally transform every sector of the economy. It will bridge the digital divide, starting with fishermen, farmers, construction, mining, and logistics enterprises. With this solution, India will have access to a ubiquitous fabric of connectivity for millions of unconnected machines, sensors, and industrial IoT devices, a press release claimed.

The indigenously-developed solution will connect BSNL’s satellite-ground infrastructure and provide pan-India coverage, including the Indian seas. The technology has successfully been tested by the Indian Railways, fishing vessels, and enabling connected vehicles across India.

According to the release, the Skylo ‘User Terminal’ interfaces with sensors and transmits data to the Skylo Network and into people’s hands. The accompanying data platform provides an immersive and visual experience for industry-specific applications on mobile phones or desktops. It gives users the ability to take immediate and appropriate action, no matter where they are. This new digital machine connectivity layer will serve as a complement to smartphone-centric mobile and Wi-Fi networks and covers India’s entire geography to bring online new applications for the first time.

P.K. Purwar, CMD, BSNL, said, “The solution is in line with BSNLs vision to leverage technology to provide affordable and innovative telecom services and products across customers segments”. Skylo will also offer critical data for the logistics sector to enable the effective distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.

Successful proofs-of-concept (POCs) have already been conducted by the two organisations and will soon approach various user groups before 2021 begins. This announcement comes amidst the ongoing Indian Mobile Congress. The new technology supports the Department of Telecommunications and NITI Aayog’s plan to bring indigenous IoT connectivity to India’s core sectors.

At the Indian Mobile Congress, Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted that telecom industry leaders and all stakeholders need to work together to for the timely roll-out of 5G technology as well as to make India a global hub for telecom equipment, design, development, and manufacturing.

He announced a plan for every village in the country to have access to high-speed fibre-optic connectivity over the next three years. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have already been linked up with fibre optic cable. India has over a billion phone users and more than 750 million Internet users, and the Prime Minister said that half of the total Internet users in India were added in the last four years and half of them resided in rural areas. “Our digital size and our digital appetite are unprecedented. We are a country where the tariffs are the lowest in the world. We are one of the fastest-growing mobile app markets in the world.”

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