Internet connectivity remains a challenge in the Philippines. A Filipino spends over 10 hours a day on the internet, the longest in the world next to South Africans, but only a small portion of the country’s population – about 18 percent of households and 43 percent of individuals – have access to secure and reliable internet connection. More recently, the Digital Cities Index found connectivity levels in Manila to be too low to enable digital transformation, as the city placed last among 30 global cities in its 2022 ranking.
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare substantial gaps in the country’s digital infrastructure. While we have seen increased reliance on the internet for business continuity and essential services, online channels remain out of reach for many Filipinos who cannot afford access to the internet or may not have the level of digital literacy that will allow them to participate in the digital space.
Given the growing demand for increased bandwidth emerging from the adoption of digital technologies, local government units (LGUs) need to be more proactive to improve internet coverage and quality of service in their areas. Moreover, the Local Government Code and the Mandanas-Garcia Ruling made it clear that the delivery of basic services, including telecommunication services, is fully transferred or devolved to the LGUs.
Indeed, because local authorities are more aware of the situation on the ground, LGUs are arguably in the best position to devise thoughtful plans to put in place a digital infrastructure that responds to the needs of their citizens. A proactive approach is key to building a digital ecosystem where affordable, reliable, and secure internet empowers Filipinos to pursue social and economic opportunities in the growing digital economy.
Below are ten things cities and LGUs can do to improve internet connectivity:
1- Include connectivity in the municipal/city administrative plans
With the ongoing pandemic, improving internet connectivity should be a top priority for LGUs as they craft their three-year Executive Legislative Agenda and Local Development Investment Plans. This will ensure that broadband requirements in local areas are holistically addressed and projects get adequate funding. LGUs can also consider tapping into their Special Education Fund to provide public schools with broadband, as Palawan has done.
2- Encourage private sector investment in digital infrastructure
To attract private investments in ICT, LGUs may consider public-private partnerships (PPPs) where public funding is set aside to help with the cost of network rollout. LGUs can also leverage public sector assets or provide private players logistical and regulatory support. To cite an example of the possibilities, a successful collaboration between the private and public sector created the country’s first off-grid electronic community offering free WiFi to the residents of Barangay Puhagan in Valencia, Negros Oriental.
3- Collect and share ICT-related data
Updated and granular data on population density and socio-economic demography of residents at magnified levels – down to villages, compounds, or street levels – within barangays, along with the location and availability of existing infrastructures such as towers and poles can encourage telcos and internet service providers to invest in an area or to partner with an LGU through a PPP arrangement. While advance methods like machine learning can estimate some of these data as Globe has done, having this information accessible can be crucial for small service providers who are likely to cover the gaps in their localities. Collected data should also be sex-disaggregated to promote internet access that is inclusive and equitable. Advocates such as Better Internet PH also recommend harnessing the power of crowdsourcing to identify underserved and unserved areas.
4- Fully implement government issuances that streamline the permitting processes for ICT deployment
The national government has released several issuances that promote the construction of Common Towers and underground fiber ducts, building of poles, and installation of aerial and underground cables, with a view to providing widespread access to telecommunications infrastructure in the country. LGUs play a critical role in implementing these issuances and should now take steps to streamline permitting and clearance requirements that are processed and granted at the local level. For one, LGUs could set up one-stop shops and implement strict timelines within its offices for processing the same. Puerto Princesa City provides a good case study. Its one-stop shop has been commended by Globe Telecom and is credited with the increase in permits issued for tower construction.
5- Rationalize and harmonize LGU fees and requirements for ICT deployment
While the national government set its target of reaching 50,000 cell towers across the country by 2026, many providers still face varying challenges at the local level, with some LGUs requiring the issuance by the Local Sanggunian of an ordinance or resolution allowing special land use, social acceptability, or construction of cell towers. In other instances, LGUs impose tower fees beyond the reasonable cost of regulation – going as high as PhP200,000 a year per tower. LGUs should reevaluate their rules to ensure that no unnecessary and time-consuming requirements are imposed for ICT deployment, and that regulatory fees are compliant with the Department of Interior and Local Government Unit’s rules on the adoption of reasonable regulatory fees and charges for LGUs.
6- Enforce non-exclusivity of internet providers in property developers/ subdivisions
To encourage the installation of broadband equipment and the provision of internet service within a residential or commercial complex, property developers resort to entering exclusive contracts that allow internet service providers the sole right to provide internet service to tenants and owners. This practice, as recently explained by the Philippine Competition Commission, deprives tenants and owners the chance to choose between providers for faster, more stable, and more affordable internet connection. To enhance consumer choice, the LGU should consider passing an ordinance prohibiting developers within their jurisdiction from entering into internet exclusivity arrangements. This matter may be monitored and implemented by the LGU when issuing original construction and business permits of the developer or property management office, or when renewing the latter.
7- Encourage infrastructure sharing
Internet service providers tend to focus on highly urbanized areas where the return on investment is more certain, shying away from peri-urban and rural areas. To fast-track and lower the cost of network deployment, LGUs can pass an ordinance mandating the shared use of open, neutral, and affordable facilities such as towers, poles, underground vaults and conduits, and other infrastructure essential for broadband networks. They can also allow private use of government-owned infrastructure – including government buildings, towers, and roads for ICT facilities, especially in areas where deployment can be challenging due to geographic constraints.
8- Set standards for telco integration in residential property design
While the internet has become as indispensable as electricity and water, the National Building Code does not require the provision of telco and broadband infrastructure in residential developments. To address this gap at the LGU level, local authorities can pass an ordinance that will set standards for the provision of shared space to accommodate multiple telco and broadband providers in property developments. They should also support the call of DICT to push for the amendment of the building code to codify the obligations of building owners or developers for shared access.
9- Require the installation of broadband conduit or cables in public construction projects
Laying cables or fibers underground and using conduits or ducts in public rights-of-way offer a speedy and cost-effective alternative to pole attachment for broadband network roll-out. LGUs can help promote a wide-scale broadband deployment at an optimal cost by promoting one-time civil works (also known as dig once policy). This can be done by mandating the installation of joint or shared utility corridors, which will allow various operators to lay fiber during the construction of new public infrastructure such as roads, bridges, pedestrian walkways, and overpasses.
10- Allow the use of electronic or digital signatures in government transactions
The use of electronic or digital signatures facilitates the quick and efficient delivery of government services by significantly cutting long queues and the turnaround time to sign paperwork. Digital signatures, in fact, offer increased security and authenticity by using asymmetric cryptography. It should be noted that to meet Commission of Audit requirements, LGUs are required to issue internal rules for the use of digital signatures.
Through BEACON Activity, USAID helps improve the Philippines’ ICT and logistics infrastructure; strengthen the regulatory, business, and innovation environment; and bolster cybersecurity. To help bridge the digital divide, USAID also assists the government in automation and digitization efforts and supports community networks to expand low-cost internet access for underserved communities.