The number of smartphone users in the country is expected to reach 90 million by 2021, according to the 2016 Ericsson Mobility Report (Jiao, 2016). This figure should excite any smartphone manufacturer, given that the total population is currently pegged at around 109 million, as per census data. According to the latest available data, about 87 percent of Filipino adults are mobile phone users as of 2018 (We are Social and Hootsuite, 2018), and the number of mobile phone connections is more than the total population (We are Social and Hootsuite, 2020). The mobile internet penetration rate is fast increasing by 30 million users every year (Garcia, 2016).
The use of mobile phones has penetrated everyday life to the extent that even the poorest consider mobile phone services as a ‘necessity’ despite it being a greater cost burden for those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ (Aguero, de Silva, and Kang, 2011, p. 19).
The ultra-sensitive smartphone market reflects the massive income disparity in the Philippines, as the budget smartphones priced at 150 USD and below capture two-thirds of the market (Jain, 2019). Chinese brands have gained a strong consumer base (57 percent of the total sales in the last quarter of 2019), largely due to their aggressive marketing and expansion of distribution channels (Jain, 2019). The local manufacturer Cherry Mobile is still among the top five brands but has seen a decline in sales due to intense market competition with the Chinese handsets (Jain, 2019). The market strategy of Cherry Mobile is worth mentioning in this section: It continues to have a significant market share primarily due to its ‘pervasive presence in the provinces’ coupled by its low-end prices (International Data Corp., 2018, cited by Reyes, 2018). These figures are congruent with the fact that 4G, even 3G, internet connectivity is absent in many rural areas especially in the coastal areas of major island groups Visayas and Mindanao, which could explain the lesser need for mobile internet activity (e.g. availing of services online), and hence the lesser preference for more capable but higher-priced smartphones.
The use of mobile phones for grassroots activity has been documented in several academic and professional works. SMS has been used for grassroots health communication in remote villages in the Philippines, as in the case of how government ‘barangay’ (village) health workers communicate with stakeholders in a rural area at southern Philippines (see Sumaylo, 2013). Among health professionals and students, the ‘basic’ mobile phone remains to be the most used medium at home and at work (Gavino, Ho, Wee, Marcelo, and Fontelo, 2013, p.303).
Mobile phone usage has also found its way into indigenous communities in highly remote areas. For example, according to an ethnographic study (Zapata, 2016), the Applai and Bontok Igorot communities in the Cordillera mountain range use mobile phones as a way of disseminating information to the community (as opposed to visiting all homes to share news). The usage of mobile phones is heavily governed by the ‘indigenous social code’ (p.1) and is still hindered somewhat by infrastructure inadequacies.