Mobile network ecosystem

Mobile communication in the Philippines has seen a massive growth in terms of the number of mobile phone users and subscriptions and range of mobile activity (from 2G-based communication to availing of services through online mobile applications). This is despite the deeply entrenched duopoly in the telecommunications industry – a duopoly that has raked immense profits for decades now (Camus, 2018) even as reports of poor or spotty service and "unfulfilled" advertising promises found their way in both informal and formal venues (Elchico, 2015).

It is ironic that the country is at the top of the list in social media usage and amount of time spent in the Internet, but infrastructure inadequacies prevent a significant number of users from taking advantage of mobile activity in its full potential. Internet speed in the country lags behind that of its neighboring countries and is even below the global average (Akamai Technologies, 2017). The availability of stable mobile signal – and all the more 4G connectivity (Opensignal, 2018) – remains concentrated in the urban Philippines. The industry players continue to blame government bureaucracy for the infrastructure inadequacies such as inadequate cell towers (Philippines has far less than neighboring countries Vietnam and Indonesia), and while the government has drafted the first ever "common cell tower" policy to fast track the construction of more towers, visions of the future are clouded with disagreements among industry players and government representatives (Camus, 2018).

Nevertheless, mobile phone usage has become so pervasive that there are documented cases of it being used to disseminate information in far-flung indigenous communities (see for example Zapata, 2016). There are also documented cases of mobile phone usage among government workers at the grassroots level (eg village health workers communicating through SMS with patients and other stakeholders).

The digital divide that persists partly because of poor telecommunications infrastructure in the countryside is also a function of socio-economic inequalities in the country. In the urban Philippines, more and more people are availing of services (transportation, purchase of products, mobile banking, among others) through mobile apps. However, particularly in the case of mobile banking and purchase of services, the "emerging affluent" tend to use applications in an extent more than the lower income strata (based on the results of the Visa Consumer Payment Attitudes study in 2016).

The smartphone market is dominated by ultra-low-end phones with a strong presence in the provinces (International Data Corp, 2018, cited by Reyes, 2018). The lesser preference for higher-priced phones (capable of more sophisticated mobile activity) in the countryside could probably be explained by heightened poverty levels as well as lack of 4G, even 3G, connectivity in the area.

When using the Internet through smartphones, Filipinos tend to spend the most time on mobile messenger, followed by watching videos and playing games. It appears that Filipinos in general feel a constant need to connect with their networks local and abroad, especially with the increasing number of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). OFWs total to about 2.3 million as of 2017 (Philippine Statistics Authority, 2018), a 61-fold increase since 1975, when the first statistics for overseas employment was recorded (International Organisation for Migration, 2013, cited by Lozada, 2013).