DICT Secretary Rodolfo Salalima shares his plans to digitalise Philippines

When former President Benigno Aquino III signed into law the Republic Act 10844 to create the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), Rodolfo Salalima was on the plane to Geneva, Switzerland to attend the council meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Salalima used to be a private litigator and practitioner. He was also once the Senior Vice President for Corporate and Regulatory Affairs, and Assistant Corporate Secretary, at Globe Telecom. He used to head the Globe Telecom Holdings, Inc too.

Besides that, he was doing pro-bono work for the Philippines’ government as the country’s adviser and spokesperson in ITU’s council, and plenipotentiary meetings, before being appointed as the DICT secretary by President Rodrigo Duterte last June.

Accepting the position was not an easy decision for Salalima. “There were some second thoughts because I used to work in the private sector and doing a government job is a sacrifice [as] I have to close my law office so I can assume [the position],” he said in an exclusive interview with Computerworld Philippines.

“But I feel that I am happy that in the last part of my life; at least I’m doing something for our government, for our people, at least I am going to leave a legacy to the Filipino people as the first Secretary of the DICT,” he added.

As the head of the seven-month old department, Salalima said their priority projects are in line with the mandate of President Duterte during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July 2016. This includes the development of a National Broadband Plan (NBP), boosting Wi-Fi access in public areas, and the creation of a National Government Portal (NGP).

Improving internet access in the Philippines

According to Salalima, under the proposed NBP, the government will establish broadband infrastructures from the northern to the southern parts of the country. This aims to deliver telecommunications services to government agencies and areas in the countryside without access to the internet.

The government had three options to implement the plan. First was to build a passive network infrastructure to be leased and operated by telco companies. The second choice was to build a broadband infrastructure operated by the DICT. The last option was to build a network and enter as a complete telecommunications player.

After previous consultation with other cabinet officials, Salalima said that DICT will implement the second option.

“Now the Undersecretary Dennis Villorente is fleshing out, putting details on the National Broadband Plan for approval of the President. Hopefully, by the end of January, we may be able to present the broadband with some details,” he added.

Salalima claimed that DICT is also looking to utilise the existing 5,000 to 10,000-kilometre fibre optic cables of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) to make it easier for them to implement the plan, and reduce the cost of the project.

Problems in funding the NBP

Without existing cables or components, Salalima estimated that the NBP plan will likely cost PHP 77 billion to PHP 199 billion to execute, and will take three to four years to be fully implemented.

For this year, Salalima said the national government has allotted PHP 2.9 billion budget for DICT and its attached agencies. The agencies include the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Centre (CICC), and the National Privacy Commission (NPC).

Since the budget preparation came before President Duterte’s mandated projects, the NBP was not part of the PHP 2.9 billion budget.

However, Salalima said the Department of Budget Management (DBM) might provide PHP 1 billion supplemental budget to kick-off the project. “I was talking with Secretary Ben Diokno of the DBM and [they said they might be able to] give us supplemental budgets for our projects. For the first year (i.e. 2017), we might need only PHP 1 billion [budget for the NBP] project [because] this is more on mobilisation of the broadband [which includes the] plans and perhaps going around the country for inspection.”

Salalima added that DICT might lease on the existing cable lines from telco companies with excess capacities in some areas of the country instead of installing their own, if the move helps reduce the implementation cost.

In exchange, he said DICT might allow telcos to lease the network infrastructures of the government in some areas to offer their services. “[It’s like] quid pro quo - telcos can use DICT’s facility there, access it in payment for our use of their submarine [cables] in this area. [It] could be monetary or exchange of the facilities and the use of the facilities.”

Aside from funding, Salalima added DICT might encounter challenges to get permits from local governments when they start implementing the project. “In putting up the broadband, you have to go throughout the countryside and get permits [like the] rights of way etc. So you have to deal with a lot of agencies and local governments, which might mean a little delay.”

In response, Salalima said DICT will ask the President to issue an executive order to require the agencies, from which DICT will apply licences from, to expedite the licensing process.

More Wi-Fi Hotspots

Meanwhile, Salalima said DICT will be establishing more Wi-Fi sites in the country in the coming years.

According to the website of the Juan, Konek! Free Wi-Fi Internet Access in Public Places Project, 1,634 cities and municipalities in the Philippines have access to Wi-Fi. DICT aims to increase the number of Wi-Fi hotspots in the country this year, especially with an almost PHP 1.8 billion budget for the project. 

“[Since we are just starting,] my department might set up [around] 1,300 [Wi-Fi sites this year]. We intend to reach [around] 18,000 sites by next year,” Salalima stated. Around 100,000 sites across the country are expected to have Wi-Fi access by 2022.

Bridging the digital divide

By improving and expanding the internet access in the Philippines, Salalima hopes to bridge the digital divide, especially in the far-flung areas.

DICT is also implementing nationwide digital inclusion initiatives, such as the Technology for Education, Employment, Entrepreneurs, and Economic Development (Tech4ED) project.

The Tech4ED project aims to establish technology centres across the country to provide e-government and ICT-enabled services in communities with minimal or no access to information and government services.

According to the Tech4ED website, each centre is provided with access to the Tech4ED Platform and Learning Management System (LMS). The platforms will feature various contents and learning materials focused in five segments:

  1. e-EduSkills, which aims to deliver e-Learning on demand. It will offer: Learning English Application for Pinoys (LEAP), Skills Training, Values and Character Formation, and Alternative Learning System (ALS).
  2. e-Assist, which will deliver skills development opportunities for women, people with disabilities (PWDs), senior citizens, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) including their families and relatives, career shifters, and teachers. It will offer contents on ICT for Digital Literacy, ICT for Financial Literacy, ICT for Career Development, and ICT for Entrepreneurs.
  3. e-GovServe, which delivers direct government services to rural communities through Tech4ED Centres.
  4. e-Agri, which provides content and services on agriculture technologies for farmers and fisher folks. It thus offers eFarming, PhilRice MOET app, rice text centre, Pinoy rice, rice crop manager, rice data and information portal, rice doctor, and rice knowledge bank.
  5. eMarketplace, which provides greater market reach beyond the community.

Engineering smart cities

According to Salalima, all of DICT’s projects and plans will contribute to the overall goal of building smart cities in the Philippines.

As part of the smart city initiative, the government has implemented the Integrated Government Philippines (iGovPhil) that aims to establish an e-government by connecting agencies, integrating networks, and through open data.

Under the iGovPhil project, DICT soft launched the NGP last December. The NGP is a one-stop shop for online government services and information that is designed to simplify transactions, avoid crowding in offices, and minimise the red tape.

Simultaneously, DICT also launched the Deduping and Matching Application (DMA) that will be used to create the person information registry, which is a streamlined database of people interacting with the Philippine government. Essentially, the application will remove duplicates in databases and merge them with the authenticated record.

“[The NGP and DMA that we launched] will serve as the backbone of an interoperable and interconnected e-Government that will improve not only inter-agency collaboration, but also the delivery of services to the citizens,” said Villorente in a press release.

However, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) will be the first agency to use the DMA in its On-premises Person Registry System to “deduplicate” and match users’ birth, marriage, and death records. The records will then be readied for validation by other agencies and stakeholders.

Vision for the ICT industry in the Philippines

Moving forward, Salalima hopes to expand the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in the country, improve education and employment through the use of ICT, and include the right to telecommunicate as a basic human right in the constitution.

“From the business perspective, I foresee that BPOs will no longer be constrained in Metro Manila. In fact, there are now a lot BPOs outside the Metro Manila like Bacolod, Iloilo, Davao, [and] Legaspi and these will go full blast,” Salalima noted.

In line, the government crafted the Next Wave Cities programme. The programme aims to identify cities in the country with the best capabilities to support the continued growth of the information technology and business process management (IT-BPM) sector, beyond more established hubs and Centres of Excellence in Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Metro Clark, and Bacolod City.

Last year, the now defunct Department of Science and Technology-Information and Communications Technology Office (DOST-ICTO), the Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP), and the Leechiu Property Consultants named Baguio, Cagayan De Oro, Dagupan, Dasmariñas, Dumaguete, Lipa, Malolos, Naga, Sta. Rosa, Laguna, and Taytay as next wave cities.

On the side of education, Salalima aims to use ICT to anticipate the jobs that will be in demand. He said this will help high school graduates to choose the course that will provide them jobs related to their field of studies, thus avoiding skillset mismatch.

“I will be talking with the Department of Education, and the [Commission on Higher Education] on how we can, in effect, introduce ICT in the curriculum,” said Salalima.

Furthermore, the Secretary hopes the right to telecommunicate be included in the Philippine Constitution.

“[I wish] if and when we amend our constitution again, I hope that the framer of our new constitution would put in our bill of rights, article three of the Philippine Constitution, the fundamental statement that right to telecommunicate is a basic human right. [By doing so,] the government will be compelled to provide every Filipino, not only to avail of the service, but also to provide them with the equipment so that they can avail all the service,” Salalima concluded.