By Tracy Cabrera
DESPITE the nightmarish shift to distance-learning, classes for school year 2020-2021 finally got going Monday, October 5, with nearly 25 million students in grade school and high school enrolled in about 47,000 public schools nationwide and needing to replicate at home and enlist the help of their parents and guardians as co-teachers.
This is a logistical nightmare for education officials in a country that has long lacked enough classrooms, teachers and equipment and this because of the coronavirus pandemic that has forced remote-learning onto an educational system already struggling to fund schools.
A majority of Filipino families, especially from poor and rural communities, has opted to use government-provided digital or printed learning materials or modules, which students would read at home with the guidance of their elders before carrying out specified activities. Most, however, lack computers and reliable internet connections and teachers would have to answer questions by telephone.
The rest of the families preferred for their children to get lessons online or through regional radio and TV educational broadcasts.
“The system may not be perfect and there may be issues as we shift to flexible learning . . . but we are confident that the Department of Education would address these challenges,” presidential spokesperson Atty. Harry Roque enthused.
President Rodrigo Duterte has said school classes should resume only when a Covid-19 vaccine has been made available, fearing classrooms could become infection hotspots.
The Philippines has reported more than 322,400 infections, the highest in Southeast Asia, with more than 5,700 deaths.
But with Filipino life moving online and the coronavirus pandemic magnifying the country’s internet connectivity problems, government critics underscored the urgent need for Duterte administration to institute policy and regulatory reform in the country’s broadband sector to accommodate digital transition amidst the ongoing health crisis.
In a forum hosted by the Covid-19 Action Network (CAN), experts emphasized how the internet connectivity has become ‘indispensable tool’ in the country’s response to the virus and its move to the so-called ‘new normal’, where life is forced to move online.
CAN is a network of civil society organizations, individuals, and stakeholders from the government and the private sector working to fight the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus-2 or SARS-CoV-2.
Experts noted for many places in the archipelago, including much of the countryside, internet connection is either poor or entirely absent.
According to their data, over 40 percent of Filipinos, 52 percent of public schools, and 57 percent of households nationwide still don’t use the internet.
They attribute this problem to the lack of competition among service providers in the country, which is said to be caused by high barriers to entry in the market.
One of the arguably biggest barriers for players is the franchise system, said Wilson Chua of Project Bass, a non-profit app that monitors the performance of telecommunications companies.
For these players to operate and conduct business in the country, they must first secure a congressional franchise. Chua thinks removing this requirement can lower the cost and speed-up the deployment of broadband networks in places that need them, resulting in a surge of investments.
Having more players in the market also brings more infrastructure, helping meet the growing demand by different sectors for fast, stable, and affordable internet connection. Unfortunately, this has continued to be an obstacle face by government despite efforts to address the growing concern, which not only adversely affects business activity but the educational system as well.
To lower the barriers to entry, CAN is proposing for several policy and regulatory reforms.
Experts suggest adopting an open access network, which will allow different players to enter different segments in the market to compete and interconnect with each other.
An Open Access bill has already been drafted, urging the government to use this framework to aid in rolling-out broadband networks across the country. However, there’s no movement as of yet and apparently, the move has not been prioritized by the President Rodrigo Duterte’s pool of think tanks.
Experts also propose the signing of a new executive order that grants internet service providers access to satellites and allow them to build networks using that technology to serve areas that do not yet have internet connection.
The group also recommends a passive infrastructure sharing policy that lets network providers coordinate with different departments of government in the installation of fiber optic cables, cellular towers, and other infrastructures.
Lastly, they advise the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) to review the licensing and permitting requirements of local government units (LGUs) and national government agencies (NGAs) that obviously hamper the deployment of internet facilities. These requirements, CAN said, are sometimes the cause of unnecessary delay.