MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The lingering Covid-19 pandemic has hastened the country's adoption of digital technology – from work-from-home arrangements to financial transactions, and even shopping for basic necessities.
The Internet is no doubt the biggest component of a successful transition to a technology-dependent "new normal" after this health crisis. Sadly for the Philippines, we are still too far behind insofar as consumer satisfaction with Internet services is concerned.
Current services may have come a long way from a decade ago, with telecommunication companies (telcos) bragging about how fast their Internet speeds are now, based on widely used testing outfits such as web service provider Ookla.
However, a subsidiary of Nord Security based in the Netherlands released last week a global study ranking countries according to what it calls "digital well-being".
Surfshark's latest Digital Quality of Life Index (DQL) report shows the country's overall ranking falling to 55th – from 48th in the previous year – out of 117 countries. The Philippines is lumped among countries with the "least affordable" Internet services, yet consumers get only "mediocre" quality of connectivity.
This assessment is based on what Surfshark calls five fundamental digital life pillars, including Internet affordability, which is the Philippines' weakest spot as it ranked 98th globally.
"Residents can buy 1 GB (gigabyte) of mobile Internet in the Philippines for as cheap as 4 minutes 51 seconds of work per month," the report notes. "However, compared with Israel, which has the most affordable mobile Internet on the planet (5 seconds per 1 GB), Filipinos work 59 times more."
For fixed broadband connectivity, it adds that Filipinos have to spend 11 hours and 5 minutes a month to be able to pay for it. Compared with Israel, which has Internet packages costing 19 minutes of work monthly, the study says Filipinos have to work 34 times more.
"Since last year, broadband Internet has become less affordable in the Philippines, making people work six hours four minutes more to afford fixed broadband Internet service," the research points out, noting that inflation has led to rising prices of broadband services globally.
Meanwhile, the Philippines ranks 45th in Internet quality, which considers Internet speed, stability and growth.
"Internet quality in the Philippines is comparatively mediocre, and on a global scale, fixed broadband Internet is better than mobile," Surfshark says.
The country's fixed broadband Internet speed is 75.1 megabit per second (Mbps) and 38.7 Mbps for mobile Internet. The DQL study notes though that fixed broadband and mobile Internet speed had improved by 52.2 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively, since last year.
However, "in comparison, Singapore's residents enjoyed mobile speeds up to 104 Mbps and fixed to as much as 261 Mbps – that's the fastest Internet in the world this year," it says. Of course, many will question why the study compares local Internet service with that of Israel and Singapore, which have the world's best.
But isn't that supposed to be the aspiration of local telcos, to be among the best?
World-class athletes do not train hard to be second or third in competitions. And this is not the first time that we hear of findings and criticisms about the poor yet expensive telco services we have.
During the pandemic when remote learning had to be adopted, complaints mounted about teachers and students having difficulties – or even failing – to get Internet connection, especially in the provinces where telco services have traditionally lagged.
Didn't former president Rodrigo Duterte also rant about their poor service? Weeks before he assumed office in 2016, Mr Duterte challenged the telco duopoly of PLDT/Smart and Globe Telecom to address "slow and expensive" Internet services in the country or face a regime that would ease the entry of large foreign players.
In his address to a joint session of Congress four years later, Mr Duterte again castigated the telcos for their poor service and threatened them with government expropriation. The entry of a third telco, supposedly to give consumers an alternative, has not brought about the promised result.
Consumers and lawmakers to this day continue to lament the country's dismal yet costly Internet services. Telcos really owe it to their subscribers to disclose what their plans are to improve their services, considering that the new normal will be highly dependent on technology.
At the end of the day, all those ultrafast speed tests that telcos brag about will be for naught if their services do not reach the masses at prices that common folks such as teachers and ordinary workers can afford.
Telco companies must exert more effort – and invest more – to bring down the cost of their services and expand their reach. They are not being asked to be at par with Israel's or Singapore's, they need to only narrow the really huge gap.
- The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media entities.