News Analysis Telecoms

Information underload

Information and communication technology

Information and communication technology (ICT) are as an integral part of today’s commerce as the physical transport links that form the conduits of trade. In the words of Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates: “Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without talking about the other”.

The fact is, in a globalised world where competition for market share is relentless, time is of the essence. Without good ICT infrastructures, innovation will be restricted. Countries and their private sectors will find it difficult to challenge their competitors. And the further behind those countries fall with their ICT infrastructures, the further behind their economies will fall also.

The 2017 Global Innovation Index (GII) deals specifically with ICT by measuring and assessing four areas – ICT access; ICT use; online service by government and online participation by citizens. The GII ranks 127 countries world wide. Our particular interest is to see where the Philippines is ranked in this index in the context of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) states. Asean members, Laos and Myanmar, are not included in this survey.

Here, then, are the Asean states global positions for ‘Information and communication technologies’. Singapore, 7th; Malaysia, 44th; Thailand, 71st; Vietnam, 75th; Philippines, 78th; Brunei, 85th; Indonesia, 99th; Cambodia, 118th.

What’s important in that ranking is that the Philippines falls behind Thailand and Vietnam. These are countries it should really beat in ICT. But it doesn’t and here’s one reason why. On a wholly separate indicator, the 2016 ICT Development Index (IDI) – published by the United Telecommunications Union – the Philippine lags those two countries (along with Singapore and Malaysia, and for that matter, Brunei). The IDI captures ICT readiness; ICT intensity, and ICT capabilities/skills – all areas which require constant investment. And investment in ICT in the Philippines has been allowed to fall behind.

Now we turn to one of the criteria which created that result – ‘ICT access’. Here’s how the featured Asean countries fared in that. Singapore, 11th; Brunei, 47th; Malaysia, 59th; Thailand, 65th; Indonesia, 88th; Philippines, 89th; Vietnam, 90th; Cambodia, 99th.

Of course, the Philippines is going to come ahead of Vietnam and Cambodia. ICT is still in its infancy in those countries. Telecommunications in the Philippines goes back to the 1920s. Cambodians had to wait for another 60-plus years before they got any semblance of telecoms in their country. In the 1990s, there was only one telephone for every 544 people in Vietnam. Furthermore, Vietnam didn’t connect to the global Internet until 1997 – the same year Cambodia got its first Internet hook-up, via a 64-kilobytes-per-second link to Singapore.

ICT accessibility is not some form of optional extra. For innovators, entrepreneurs and the research & development sector it’s essential. It makes information and communications instantly available to them, allowing ideas to flow freely.

Imagine if they had to wander off to the public library to get the information they needed and communicate it to colleagues and kindred workers around the world by means of a letter in the post. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but effectively – in a relative sense – that’s what those with poor access are doing.