Rapid adoption of digital technologies can help the Philippines overcome the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic, recover from the crisis, and achieve its vision of becoming a middle-class society free of poverty, according to the report released Monday by the World Bank and the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).
Titled “A Better Normal Under Covid-19: Digitalizing the Philippine Economy Now,” the report says that the use of digital technologies such as digital payments, e-commerce, telemedicine, and online education, is rising in the Philippines and has helped individuals, businesses, and the government cope with social distancing measures, ensure business continuity, and deliver public services during the pandemic.
“This pandemic has caused substantial disruptions in the domestic economy as community restrictions have limited movement of people and reduced business operations nationwide. As we are now living with the new normal, the use of digital technology and digital transformation have become important for Filipinos in coping with the present crisis, moving towards economic recovery, and getting us back on track towards our long-term aspirations,” NEDA Undersecretary Rosemarie Edillon said in a statement.
The use of digital technologies in the Philippines, however, is still below its potential, with the country’s digital adoption generally trailing behind many regional neighbors.
The “digital divide” between those with and without the internet leads to unequal access to social services and life-changing economic opportunities.
“Internet connectivity –the foundation of the digital economy– is limited in rural areas, and where they are available, services are relatively expensive and of weak quality,” said Ndiame Diop, World Bank Country Director for Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. “Upgrading digital infrastructure all over the country will introduce fundamental changes that can improve social service delivery, enhance resilience against shocks, and create more economic opportunities for all Filipinos.”
Where internet services are available, Filipino consumers experience slow download speeds. At 16.76 megabytes per second (Mbps), the Philippines’s mobile broadband speed is much lower than the global average of 32.01 Mbps.
In the region, the 3G/4G mobile average download speed stands at 13.26 Mbps compared to only seven (7) Mbps in the Philippines.
Efforts to enhance digital infrastructure in the Philippines are hindered by a lack of competition as well as restrictions on investment in the telecommunications markets, according to the report.
These restrictions include the public utility designation of telecommunications, which limits foreign ownership and places a cap on the rate of return.
The report also identifies the low transaction account ownership, the lack of a national ID, nascent payment infrastructure, and the perceived risk of digital transactions as restricting the wider adoption of digital payments.
Encouraging wider participation on digital payments is best supported by public agencies going digital themselves.
Two key entry points identified in the report are expanding the use of e-signatures among government agencies and mandating the acceptance of e-invoices and e-receipts in government transactions.
According to World Bank economist Kevin Chua, lead author of the report, increasing digital adoption by the government, businesses, and citizens is critical, not only to help the Philippines adapt to the post-COVID-19 world, but also to achieve its vision of becoming a society free of poverty by 2040.
“In this society-wide digital transformation, the government can take the lead by speeding up e-governance projects, such as the foundational identification system and the digitization of its processes and procedures, which will help promote greater inclusion, improve efficiency, and enhance security,” Chua said.
“Moreover, the government can take an active role in fostering policies that reduce the digital divide and create a more conducive business environment for the digital economy to flourish,” he added.
Fostering innovation and improving the business environment in the country will be critical in supporting the digital economy. Recent government efforts to speed up the rollout of mobile network infrastructure through a common tower policy are steps towards the right direction, the report said.