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Mapping digital poverty in PH

Artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning can help policymakers know where gaps are

Source: Asian Development Bank

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing inequalities accentuated by the widening of the digital divide.

As the pandemic continues to reinforce the need for social distancing and continued lockdowns, the need for quality digital access and connectivity that is efficient, inclusive and sustainable—where users including the poor and marginalized have access to sufficient internet connection even in remote areas—has increased in importance. Achieving universal access to high-quality internet is an important public policy goal, but despite an accelerated shift to the digital space enabling service delivery, over 700 million people around the world remain without digital access.

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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other development partners call on the need to expand investments in digital infrastructure and ensure equitable access to technology as economies recover from the coronavirus disease pandemic.

In the Philippines, connectivity remains higher in urban centers and weak digital infrastructures persist in more rural areas. The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) cites that a higher incidence of urban households have internet compared to rural households, with Metro Manila households having the highest access at 32.3 percent. The digital landscape has made productivity a privilege and those without sufficient access are left behind, losing out on opportunities from basic amenities and quality education, to decent work and reskilling. In a post-COVID world, the challenges to the Philippines and other countries in delivering availability, accessibility and affordability of reliable internet have never been greater.

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As part of a joint series by ADB and Thinking Machines on Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Machine Learning for Development, we map digital poverty in the Philippines. Using advanced machine learning techniques, we estimate poverty combined with big data (e.g. from Project Bandwidth and Signal Strength or BASS and Speedtest by Ookla) to analyze spatial patterns of digital inequality to better inform and target strategic investments for digital development.

For our work, we use open crowdsourced information from Project BASS which shows the approximate location of cell site towers, triangulated from user devices. We complement this with Speedtest by Ookla for Q3 2020 which records the download speed, upload speed and latency on fixed broadband and mobile internet connections. For Speedtest by Ookla in the Philippines, we observe for both urban and rural areas, over 80 percent of devices running tests for Q3 were on fixed broadband, while just under 20 percent were on mobile.

This is consistent with the recent 2019 National ICT (information and communications technology) Survey which shows that the majority of households use fixed broadband internet versus mobile internet, and that this is the case for most regions across the country.

Our key findings include:

Access to sufficient internet speeds shrink in rural areas.

In 2019, the DICT released high-level findings from the first National ICT Survey, aimed to establish internationally comparable ICT indicators for the country. Based on the survey, only half of the country’s 42,064 barangays have telco operators in the area and only 30 percent have fiber optic cables installed.

But even for those with internet access, is there sufficient bandwidth for remote work or learning? For popular video calling platforms like Zoom and Google, the minimum requirement to conduct quality group calls ranges from 3-3.2 megabytes per second (mbps) for upload and download speeds. Using this as a benchmark for “sufficient internet speed,” we analyze the population for each region in the Philippines cross-referenced to the Speedtests from Q3 2020 to see how many people have access to the minimum required bandwidth for group video calls and how many do not.

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From our research, we see that only 83 percent of the Philippine population live in areas with sufficient fixed broadband speeds, while only 70 percent for mobile. Unsurprisingly, highly urbanized and dense Metro Manila has the largest percent of the population with sufficient access to both fixed broadband and mobile. Whereas the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao has the largest percent of the rural population without sufficient access for both fixed broadband and mobile internet. The decline in access for rural populations not only shows how many are left without the means to fully participate in this shift to the digital space but also indicates the disparity of quality infrastructure between more central and urban areas versus more remote and rural areas.

Poorer areas have less access, slower internet speeds and fewer cell towers.

In drilling down further, we wanted to check whether we see similar patterns when looking at this through the lens of poverty measures.

Comparing the average download speeds for five of the wealthiest versus five of the poorest cities in the Philippines, the disparity is stark. The average download speeds in the wealthiest cities are up to 21 mbps faster than the average in the poorest cities. Up to 100 percent of the population in wealthier cities have access to sufficient internet speed of at least 3.2 mbps, while as small as 6 percent of the poorest cities do. The location of infrastructure (e.g. cell towers) is also key in understanding how access is distributed across the country. We see clusters of cell towers in urban areas like Cebu City, Puerto Princesa and Davao City, but none of these compare to the breadth and density of towers in Metro Manila with the largest concentration of cell sites. Meanwhile large gaps can be seen in areas with more geographical constraints, such as the mountainous region in northern Philippines.

At the last mile, only 15 percent of Filipinos have access to sufficient internet speeds and only 9.5 percent live within the serviceable scope of cell towers.

For the population considered to be part of the “last mile,” access reduces even further. To measure this, we looked at the population living more than 2 kilometers from a major road network and found that, of the 9.4 million Filipinos at the last mile, only 15 percent actually have access to sufficient internet speeds on fixed broadband. For mobile, this is just 6.5 percent of the 9.4 million population group.

The pandemic is catalyzing innovations in work, learning and access to resources and services, but these are centralized in wealthier, urban areas. We risk further entrenching socioeconomic stratification as communities on the margins continue to lose out on the means to recover and adapt in a post-pandemic world. Why is internet access in the Philippines so disparate?

The insufficiency of digital infrastructures in the country is a result of multiple factors, including stringent restrictions in the telecommunications market leading to a lack of competition and high barriers to entry. With predominantly two major service providers that own and control the entire broadband infrastructure, it is extremely difficult for new firms to compete. In addition, the Philippines is one of the top business process outsourcing destinations in the world, further concentrating demand for telecommunication services in Metro Manila. A whole-of-government approach will be needed in identifying and implementing both legal and regulatory reforms and policy measures to bridge the digital divide. —CONTRIBUTED INQ

This is a condensed version of the final blog in a series by the Asian Development Bank and Thinking Machines Data Science, Inc. which explores ways to use big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to craft development solutions during the pandemic. Stephanie Sy and Anica Araneta are from Thinking Machines while Hanif Rahemtulla, Bruno Carrasco and Stella Balgos are from ADB.

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TAGS: Business, digital, Poverty
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