Mobile network ecosystem

Mobile communication in the Philippines has seen a massive growth in terms of penetration rate (the number of people having mobile phones and mobile phone 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, 2018a) 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 is still below the global average (ABS CBN News, 2019; Akamai Technologies, 2017). The availability of stable mobile signal – and all the more 4G connectivity (Opensignal, 2018) – remains concentrated in the urban Philippines. In the GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index (2018), which measures the performance of 150 countries based on 39 indicators (e.g. mobile infrastructure), the overall country score of the Philippines is only 61.59 out of 100, a ‘transitioner’ country, as opposed to other countries that are ‘leaders’ and ‘fast transitioners’. Among the indicators, ‘affordability of devices and services’ scored the lowest, followed by ‘mobile network infrastructure’. However, according to latest ‘State of Mobile Network Experience’ report published by mobile analytics company Opensignal (Fitchard, 2019), 4G connectivity in the Philippines has imporved ‘dramatically’ as LTE users can now access an LTE connection more than 70 percent of the time.

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 parties involved (industry players and government representatives) (Camus, 2018c).

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 (e.g. village health workers communicating through SMS with patients and other stakeholders). Moreover, while sluggish speeds are common in the past decade, the future may not be as bleak, based on the 2020 report of We are Social and Hootsuite. According to the report, average mobile internet speed jumped by 11 percent from 2018 to 2019, while the speed of fixed internet connections jumped by 34 percent.

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 applications (‘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).

Nevertheless, current trends in digital payments appear promising. In 2019, 48.90 million Filipinos (about 45 percent of the population) made digitally-enabled payments (We are Social and Hootsuite, 2020). There was also an increase in the amount spent on consumer e-commerce from 2018 to 2019, as the total value of digitally enabled consumer payments in the country grew by 20 percent in just a year (We are Social and Hootsuite, 2020).

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 smartphone apps, Filipinos tend to spend the most time on social media (98 percent of the sample), followed by mobile messenger (97 percent), entertainment or video apps (92 percent), navigation apps (75 percent), gaming apps (68 percent), music apps (65 percent), and shopping apps (59 percent) (We are Social and Hootsuite, 2020).

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 2.2 million as of 2019 (Philippine Statistics Authority, 2020), a 61-fold increase since 1975, when the first statistics for overseas employment was recorded (International Organization for Migration, 2013, cited by Lozada, 2013).