The Philippines: ICT Agenda

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The Philippines is very gradually edging closer to the establishment of a dedicated government department charged with promoting and supporting the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, though it would take some time before the new agency can achieve its supporters’ lofty ambitions.

On October 12, the lower house of the parliament approved one version of a bill that lays out the terms to create a new government department charged with overseeing the development of the nation’s ICT sector. In its second reading of the bill, the House of Representatives backed the establishment of the Department of ICT (DICT), a move seen as an essential step towards building the country’s ICT infrastructure and developing a focused policy for the industry. A similar bill is currently before the Senate, where it is expected to be approved and ratified in the coming weeks.

Among its many tasks, the DICT would coordinate and implement the national ICT development agenda, including its policies, programmes and projects, according to a briefing from the National Economic and Development Authority issued earlier this year. The new department would also be tasked with implementing “national e-strategies cutting across other critical sectors such as e-education and e-health, and the country’s representation in international and regional ICT bodies”.

The plan to create a department responsible for ICT has long been in the works and was first proposed in the late 1990s, when a bill was tabled before parliament in 1998.However, the initiative has been repeatedly stalled as a result of changes in government policy priorities and opposition from other state agencies.

As recently as June the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) stated that a new body was unnecessary because other state offices carried out its functions. More recently, however, DOST officials have changed course, saying they no longer oppose the establishment of the DICT.

The idea for the creation of the department has received strong support from industry groups and non-governmental organisations, with the National ICT Confederation of the Philippines (NICP) declaring that the proposed agency is crucial for the successful development of the sector and the advancement of Philippine society.

In a letter sent to senators at the end of September, the NICP wrote that the Philippines needed the DICT to ensure that gains and opportunities in the ICT sector were mainstreamed and spread evenly throughout the country.

“Without a DICT, we strongly believe that programmes and projects to maximise ICT as a tool for social and economic development, education, health, governance, environment and other concerns will never trickle down to our cities and provinces,” the letter stated.

Other organisations that support establishing the department include the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines (JFCP), the Contact Centre Association of the Philippines (CCAP) and the Business Process Outsourcing Association of the Philippines (BPAP).

During an address that introduced the bill to the upper house in mid-September, Senator Edgardo J Angara asserted that if the Philippines had established the DICT during the previous government’s term, which ended in mid-2009, the country would already have “a working framework for e-governance initiatives and applications, especially on universal health care, precision farming, disaster risk reduction, e-learning, combating cybercrime and business regulation”.

The IT and business process outsourcing (IT-BPO) industry generated revenues of $9bn last year directly employed more than 500,000 people and created jobs for 1.3m more, Angara said. However, he noted that without a dedicated ICT department, the country has as yet been “unable to seize the huge opportunities of the fast evolving digital age”.

Indeed, a lack of centralised focus and forward-thinking initiative continues to undermine the country’s potential in this regard, evident in its current ranking in the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) global ICT competitiveness survey. The ITU’s most recent report, issued in mid-September, placed the Philippines 16th in the Asia-Pacific region and 92nd out of the 152 countries assessed. Though this ranking was up on its 2010 position of 95th, the Philippines still trails behind many of its neighbours, a number of which are also vying for an increased slice of the international IT-BPO market.

The DICT could conceivably direct a campaign to encourage greater investment in broadband expansion, particularly by enticing more direct investment or bringing in new telecoms players. The department could also have a part to play in the Philippine Long Distance Telephone’s takeover of rival firm Digital Telecommunications Philippines, which is currently under discussion at the National Telecommunications Commission.

The founding of the DICT would help develop the sector by providing a focused policy body and a direct voice in cabinet, but it would take time for the agency to find its feet and become an effective advocate for the ICT industry. Establishing the new department serves as an acknowledgement of the importance of ICT in the Philippines’ economy and the potential the sector holds for the future.

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