, February 18, 2005 (STAR) By Alma Buelva  -  (First of four parts) Filipinos may not be the most technology-immersed people on the planet but recent years have seen more of them enjoying the conveniences of a digital life.

Each day as all nations wake up to a different world where information and communications technology (ICT) changes the way we live, Filipinos find they have no choice but to learn how to navigate through life using computers and communication tools.

A country divided into 7,107 islands and inhabited by people with 111 different dialects, the Philippines stands to greatly benefit from ICT, which can be used to bridge the physical and cultural barriers that break it up as a nation.

But technology comes with a steep price, which makes participation in the ICT revolution a formidable task for many economically disadvantaged Filipinos.

The personal computer, a 25-year-old invention, is still a luxury item for most Filipinos. Today, the country’s PC penetration index is barely two percent of the total estimated population of 85 million.

Latest data from market research company International Data Corp. (IDC) show that the number of PCs installed in the Philippines stood at only 1.37 million in 2003, very low even when applied only to the segment of the population – the 52 million between the ages of 15 and 64 – that is most likely to use them.

The country’s Internet penetration index offers a slight improvement. IDC says Internet users in the Philippines stood at 9.4 million in 2003, representing a 12 percent penetration rate and a 38 percent year-on-year growth. But again, this rate is still low relative to the country’s population.

There are pockets of hope, however. In the past few years, both the government and the private sector have taken measures to remedy the poor PC and Internet penetration figures.

One ingenious solution was encouraging the proliferation of Internet cafés, which instantly made PC and Internet users out of more Filipinos who otherwise couldn’t afford having either for their exclusive use. Latest data from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) place the number of Internet cafés in the Philippines at more than 3,000.

On the government side, the Commission on Information and Communication Technology (CICT) is turning hundreds of the old public calling offices (PCOs) into community e-centers, a move that will further increase Internet usage.

Meanwhile, other programs to increase IT adoption and exposure among Filipinos also help. One stellar example is the recently completed PCs for Public High School project spearheaded by the Department of Trade and Industry in cooperation with the government of Japan and major IT companies. This project set out to established computer laboratories in 5,521 public high schools nationwide, equipping each with brand-new desktop computers that can link to the Internet, plus printers and other peripherals.

Today, Internet cafés and schools are the main access points for PCs and Internet, especially for young Filipinos. On the other hand, IDC says private and government offices remain the number one access point for 69 percent and 10 percent of Filipino PC users, respectively. Those who go online at home account for only 13 percent.

Any outsider looking in may deem these figures too small and the collective efforts of public and private organizations too slow. Still, despite the country’s economic difficulties, Filipinos have taken to technology. There is no other way now but to move forward.

Pepe in cyberland

Despite the government’s "baby steps" in ICT, the bureaucracy has so far managed to put some of its most vital public services online.

The E-Commerce Act and the Government Information Systems Plan mandate the creation of a one-stop shop for the online filing of applications for key government-to-business (G2B) transactions and for high-volume government-to-consumer (G2C) services. These were put in place from 2001 to 2004, specifically the G2B online services of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Department of Trade and Industry’s Business Name Registration System (DTI-BNRS), the Board of Investments (BOI), the Bureau of Internal Revenues (BIR) and the Philippine Export Zone Authority (PEZA).

These agencies’ virtual sites made it much easier, less costly and less time-consuming for companies to electronically acquire the licenses and registrations needed to set up and operate their businesses, and to remit their tax payments.

For G2C, the government has a number of ICT projects in progress, including the Civil Registry System Information Technology (CRS-IT) project of the National Statistics Office (NSO), the computerization of the land titling system of the Land Registration Authority (LRA), and the information technology modernization project of the Land Transportation Office (LTO).

To date, Filipinos can conveniently apply online with the NSO for copies of their civil registry documents, including birth, marriage and death certificates. They can also expect faster registration of their real estate with the LRA, and speedier registration of vehicles and issuance of driver’s licenses at the modernized LTO.

Unfortunately, the five-year Machine Readable Passports and Visas (MRP/V) Project of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is still in limbo. The project has been identified as a critical, high-volume G2C project to replace the outdated passport system with one that uses biometrics and digital signature technology. The project should give Filipinos an e-passport that is more secure and compliant with the standards set by the United States and adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization. But until the DFA gives this project a go, Filipinos traveling abroad will still have to carry non-compliant passports that expose them to closer scrutiny.

Another critical government computerization project that gets repeatedly bogged down is the modernization of the election system. Although it’s not among the government ICT projects identified in the Philippine Medium-Term Plan for 2001-2004, the computerization of the electoral process will undeniably have a great impact on the lives of every Filipino.

Still, there’s reason to hope that more national government agencies and even local government units (LGUs) will computerize to deliver better public service, in line with the country’s goal to be an international hub for ICT services.

Call of progress

The explosion in mobile communications, however, is probably one of the best things to happen to Filipinos. To have a cellular phone is a life-altering experience for many Filipinos who have long ached for a telephone in their homes.

At present, the number of mobile phone users in the country is nearing the 30-million mark, truly a giant leap from the 2.8-million Cellular Mobile Telephone Service (CMTS) subscriptions in 1999. This impressive growth of wireless communications in the country has led the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to regard the Philippines as one of the most dynamic mobile markets in the Asia-Pacific and the largest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Shepherding Filipinos to their new-found liberty to communicate are five service providers — Globe Telecoms and its affiliate Touch Mobile, Smart and its affiliate Piltel, and the newest-challenger, Sun Cellular. Collectively, their wide service coverage is in stark contrast to the country’s abysmal 12 landlines per 100 inhabitants telephone density.

Cellular phone service has penetrated the grassroots level, although many use their phones for sending text or SMS (Short Messaging Service) rather than for making voice calls. The Filipinos’ obsession with wireless phones is expected to last, especially as they witness how these devices can morph into a camera, a game console, a radio, a voice and video recorder, an MP3 player, a personal digital assistant (PDA) and a lot more.

What’s even more exciting is the coming of mobile commerce, which enables Filipinos to use their cellphones to perform over-the-air transactions such as paying for goods and services, sending electronic cash and remittances, and participating in SMS-based auctions. These innovative wireless applications offer further opportunities for Filipinos to embrace the digital lifestyle.

(Part 2: Closing the IT Divide)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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