‘$300-million NBN project would have helped PHL during pandemic’


THE Philippines should have pushed through with the National Broadband Network (NBN) project at the time it would have only cost taxpayers $300 million, according to former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s former economic advisor.

In the first plenary of the virtual Arangkada Philippines Forum on Wednesday, Albay 2nd District Rep. Joey Salceda said the NBN could have been the country’s most significant investment, given what came after the project was shelved.

Salceda said as of the second quarter of 2020, some 12.8 million Filipinos became resellers. This was significant, considering that there were mobility restrictions and the country did not have an NBN in place.

“This despite the fact that we don’t have a national broadband. Probably one of our biggest mistakes is not doing it [NBN] des-
pite all the skepticism in 2013. [At that time] it was only $300 million,” Salceda said.

In 2013, the national government shelved the NBN project due to the NBN-ZTE controversy arising from claims of bribery by Chinese contractors. The project aimed to provide broadband connectivity to remote areas nationwide but was mired in controversy.

Salceda said the Philippine economy is mainly informal and may already be the “most informal economy in Asia.” Having an internet backbone would allow more Filipinos to not only log on and be connected to family and friends but also economic opportunities.

The impact on jobs and livelihoods would be significant considering that informality of the Philippine economy, he said, may be almost 40 percent and this accounts for almost 62 percent of the total labor force.

Uneven access

Citigroup Hong Kong Johanna Chua said there is uneven access to digital platforms. Right now, those firms that already have a reach and economies of scale are the same ones able to access digital platforms—often to the detriment of the micro, small, and medium enterprises or the “mom and pop” enterprises.

Those firms which do well in the digital space are currently US- and China-based firms or those in India, which have a large domestic economy that allows them to have economies of scale—leading to the growth and development of these enterprises. This makes it difficult for smaller firms to compete at a global scale.

“So I’m just very conscious that [while] there’s productivity gains, there’s this risk of uneven distribution of the productivity gains and how do we make it more equal, how we broaden it out or some regulatory kind of compensation for some of the potential anti-competitiveness [issues],” Chua said.

Digital backbone

Developing the country’s infrastructure, including the digital backbone, would also boost the growth and development of the creative economy. Salceda said “culture is very exportable” and the country has a lot to share in this regard.

Salceda thinks the country can take advantage of this, since tourism already accounts for 11 percent of GDP and involves about 4.6 million Filipinos. The key to helping sectors like this to grow would be an NBN type of setup.

“The biggest thing there of
course would be a national broadband, especially connectivity because it allows for your ideas to freely flow so that so when you say BBB [Build, Build, Build], actually the number one in the list is a national broadband and then of course all those other institutions that essentially promote creative industries, promote culture and promote arts and heritage,” Salceda said.

Bernardo Villegas, Founder of the Center for Research and Communication (now the University of Asia and the Pacific), said Filipinos are talented and have a lot to offer. Filipino singers have won many contests abroad and some could easily rival K-Pop groups such as BTS.

He said Manila could emulate the effort exerted by the Korean government in helping these artists take the world by storm. Seoul trains and organizes talent camps to hone their people’s skills and artistry.

“This is where we really have to have a government that is convinced about their role in technology, in investing and so forth and the talents are there. So I’m very optimistic about the creative industries in the Philippines as long as the state will give the same support as the Korean government is giving to this sector,” Villegas said.

Salceda agreed with Villegas and said the Korean government invested almost $20 billion in their creative industries. This gave birth to the K-Pop phenomenon, Korea’s largest export to date.

He said this means there is support to having a Build, Build, Build program for the creative industries.

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