As COVID-19 forces life to move online, who is left behind?

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The absence of a meaningful internet connection, especially in unserved and underserved communities, means many workers, learners, and citizens will be excluded. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On April 28, Franz Berdida posted on her Twitter account a video of her studying atop a mountain.

“Umakyat ng bundok for finals kahit gabing-gabi na just to pass, kasi ayokong ma-IP or worse bumagsak,” the tweet said.

In the same Twitter account, there is a photo of Berdida climbing a coconut tree, in the hopes of securing a strong internet signal. It’s almost funny — except when one thinks about how students like Berdida are forced to climb mountains and seek greater heights, literally, just to submit assignments online, and how doing so poses real and actual risks on their lives.

Berdida lives in Burias Island, Masbate, and studies civil and sanitary engineering. A 30-minute hike to the mountain is par for the course in her province, further aggravated now that schools have closed due to the quarantine brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just a few weeks after on May 16, Kriselyn Villance, criminology student at Capiz State University in Dumarao, Roxas, died due to a motorcycle accident after searching for an internet connection in nearby barangays. She was 20 years old.

No one should climb a mountain, let alone die, in the effort to secure an internet connection. But as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, people all over the world turned to their smartphones, laptops, and other devices while strict lockdowns limited movement outside. The Philippines itself recorded the highest percentage (64 percent) of internet users (aged 16 to 64) who report spending more time on social media in recent weeks. On the other hand, the Philippines also recorded a 15 percent slowdown of internet speeds from February to March 2020.

With COVID-19, a meaningful internet connection is now a prerequisite to be “productive,” as reiterated by countless self-help articles on productivity in times of crisis. Businesses and government agencies celebrate the availability of digital options as an alternative to traditional or physical transactions. Yet what these do not capture, and erase from the conversation, is the huge disparity between those who have access to the internet (only 55 percent of Filipinos, and only 26 percent of public schools) and those who do not (everyone else). The absence of a meaningful internet connection, especially in unserved and underserved communities, means many workers, learners, and citizens will be excluded and left behind.

Such exclusion will be even more palpable as the country transitions to the “new normal,” where not only work and education, but also essential activities like government and commercial transactions will possibly shift to digital modes. The remaining 45 percent of citizens who lack meaningful internet access, and the 74 percent of public schools that cannot make the transition to e-learning, will have their productivity and education dependent on one factor they cannot control: an internet connection.

Because broadband is yet to become more accessible and affordable for Filipinos, Philippine internet use is highly mobile. Many users depend on more affordable options like Free Facebook and mobile promos which, while cheap, restrict the kinds of content that they can access (usually to social media platforms only), i.e., to a ‘walled garden.’ In a walled garden, access to information is restricted and curated by the telecommunications operator or a social media company, raising issues, among others, of net neutrality and data privacy.

Access and connection, in order to be meaningful, must also include the needs and contexts of marginalized sectors, such as persons with disabilities (PWDs), indigenous peoples, the elderly, women and children, and the like. Meaningful internet access must also mean that users have the capacity to fully utilize connectivity and protect themselves from cyber threats, such as online gender-based violence.

None of this new; if anything, the pandemic only more clearly brought this to light (as it did with many other systemic and institutional gaps in society). We have been aware of this digital divide even before COVID-19. “The Philippines lags behind its peers in terms of affordability, availability and speed of internet access,” according to the 2017 National Broadband Plan of the Department of Information Communications and Technology (DICT), the latest uploaded on its website.

Since then, government and non-government organizations have cooperated to push for policy reforms to narrow the divide, including the reclassification of satellite technology as a ‘value-added service’ instead of a ‘basic telecommunications service’ in the Free Public Wi-Fi Bill (now the Free Internet Access in Public Spaces Act). The idea, in a 2019 report by the Asia Foundation, was that reclassifying satellite technology would help foster competition (in light of the existing duopoly), allowing small players, and not just those with telecommunications franchises, to improve access to rural areas. The reform attempted to hurdle long standing roadblocks: legal and regulatory barriers that only allowed big companies to provide, and dictate, which areas had internet access, what kind of access do they have, and how they should have that access.

In a statement issued by the COVID Action Network, which consists of civil society and youth organizations, the signatories propose the issuance of a policy that would lower barriers to entry and encourage more investment for the improvement of the country’s digital infrastructure, especially beyond the urban centers. They also recommend making changes in the licensing and permitting requirements of local government units and national government agencies to help expedite the deployment of internet facilities during an emergency.

The paradox is that, in these circumstances, internet connectivity apparently promotes inclusion by allowing connected people to carry on with their daily lives, but it also excludes those who have no meaningful access. Ultimately, a key recommendation is to keep in mind that not everyone in the Philippines is connected to the internet; and second, not everyone who is connected is connected to the same internet.