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In recent years, the Philippines has passed several important economic and human development milestones. In the 2010s, thanks to building solid economic fundamentals, the country significantly expanded its middle class and reduced the number of people living in poverty to its lowest-ever levels. However, among middle-income nations, the Philippines continues to lag behind in terms of digitalization. This is an issue that, if not addressed, could see the country face serious challenges in further improving its economy and human capital.
In the Philippines, the most pressing digitalization roadblock may be the uneven distribution of vital digital infrastructure. Urban areas have experienced the lion’s share of digitalization’s benefits due to their high concentrations of digital infrastructure and because they also generally attract the majority of digital infrastructure investments. In contrast, many rural areas are still waiting for the necessary towers and cell sites to be put up to facilitate reliable internet connections.
Unfortunately, rural digitalization has historically taken a backseat due to market forces, as rural areas are less densely populated, often with not enough potential subscribers to justify additional private infrastructure investment. However, the wider development of digital infrastructure should unlock a world of opportunities for communities in the Philippine countryside, bridging the gap between urban and rural development. Let’s delve into several ways rural digitalization can bring about positive change.
The lack of widespread digitalization has forced many Filipinos in rural communities to rely on cash and potentially dangerous alternative financing, creating numerous burdens in their day-to-day lives. In communities where digital infrastructure is present, locals enjoy easier access to banking and financial services, dramatically reducing their financial risks and the time burdens involved in managing finances. Mobile banking and digital payment systems empower individuals to securely manage their finances, access credit, and conduct transactions without the need for physical bank branches. This fosters economic growth and reduces the disparity in financial access between urban and rural areas.
Improved Access to Education
Digitalization provides rural areas with improved access to education through e-learning initiatives. Online resources enable students in remote areas to access quality educational materials, participate in virtual classrooms, and benefit from interactive learning experiences. This empowers rural youth with knowledge and skills, expanding their horizons and leveling the educational playing field.
With so many schools located throughout the Philippine countryside, affordable solutions are needed to serve as many students as possible. Investments in affordable, easy-to-deploy small cell sites within or close to schools are a compelling solution. Small cell sites are small-footprint antennas normally used to supplement traditional macro cell sites in locations with high user demand. However, their low setup cost makes them ideal for providing broadband internet in key facilities located in remote areas. An increasing number of small cell sites are already being deployed specifically in rural schools throughout the Philippines, bringing a new generation of students online.
Enhanced Access to Medical Services
Digitalization plays a pivotal role in improving healthcare access for rural communities. Telemedicine and digital healthcare platforms allow individuals in remote areas to consult with healthcare professionals remotely, reducing the need for long and costly journeys to urban centers for patients not in need of urgent or emergency medical care. This technology ensures timely medical attention, promotes cost-effective preventive care, and strengthens rural healthcare systems.
In some parts of the Philippines, these services are already a reality, thanks to common towers set up by developers like Aboitiz InfraCapital’s Unity Digital. These towers reduce the entry costs for major telecom operators into rural markets as they no longer need to build their own facilities in the countryside. With the better coverage provided by common towers, we are bound to see major improvements in health outcomes for rural Filipinos.
Empowerment in the Digital Economy
Digitalization also empowers farmers and rural professionals to participate in the digital economy, opening doors to new opportunities and income streams. By leveraging digital platforms and marketplaces, farmers, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs can showcase their products and services to a wider audience, transcending traditional geographical limitations and tapping into a global market.
Agricultural Sector Advancement
In many other countries, digital technologies have already revolutionized agricultural practices in rural areas, optimizing productivity and sustainability. Direct access to broadband internet should create the same benefits for Filipino farmers.
Precision agriculture tools, such as drones and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, provide real-time data on soil conditions, weather patterns, and crop health, enabling farmers to quickly make informed decisions. This leads to improved resource management, higher yields, and reduced environmental impact.
Enhanced Disaster Preparedness and Response
Digitalization also strengthens disaster preparedness and response capabilities in rural areas. Early warning systems, remote monitoring, and data analytics help both locals and authorities anticipate and respond to natural disasters like droughts and typhoons effectively. This ensures the safety and well-being of rural communities, minimizing the impact of calamities.
Efficient Governance and Service Delivery
Rural digitalization will not only facilitate better healthcare, disaster management, and education but it will also streamline the delivery of other vital services. In parts of the world where rural digitalization has already taken place, online portals are helping simplify administrative processes, allowing rural residents to access government services, pay fees, apply for permits, and access essential documents remotely.
In the Philippines, wider rural digitalization should likewise help reduce bureaucratic hurdles and improve transparency, disincentivizing petty corruption and making governance more efficient. Ultimately, these improvements should help close the gap between urban and rural Filipinos in terms of receiving important services.
Digitalization holds immense potential for transforming rural areas in the Philippines, fostering inclusive development, and bridging the urban-rural divide. By embracing digital technologies, rural communities can achieve a quality of life closer to those of their urban counterparts. To make universal digitalization happen, policymakers, private sector entities, and local communities must collaborate and invest in digital infrastructure. Through collective efforts, digitalization can bring the Philippines’ longstanding dream of inclusive growth closer to reality.