With the country’s full digitalization over the next five years projected to cost government an estimated P100 billion, a senior lawmaker on Wednesday said the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) has assured Congress that it will implement a three-pronged strategy to speed up nationwide connectivity.

CamSur Rep. and Commission on Appointments (CA) majority leader LRay Villafuerte said Secretary Ivan John Uy informed legislators during a recent committee hearing by the CA on his designation as DICT secretary that with his department having what he called a “small” outlay of P2.5 billion for digitalization in next year’s proposed national budget, his office is eyeing three strategies to hasten the country’s digital connectivity starting in 2023, in tandem with the private sector and local government units (LGUs), especially those in urban areas.

Villafuerte said it was “about time” for all sectors to work together in hastening nationwide digitalization “because the past DICT secretaries were not really pushing for it.”

Uy told Villafuerte that with his office’s “very limited budget” for the national digitalization program, he will push for a much higher DICT budget for 2024 and onwards so his office can speed up the country’s digitalization plan over the next five years.

But while waiting for his hoped-for higher DICT digitalization outlay starting in 2024, Uy informed lawmakers about his strategies to accelerate the country’s digital switch next year by working separately with the private sector—via possible public-private partnerships (PPPs)—and affluent urban-based LGUs in pursing connectivity projects.

The DICT’s third strategy, he said, is to prioritize in his department’s limited digitalization budget the funding of connectivity projects in remote communities or geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDAs) where digital connectivity would make the “most profound effect” on the people living in those places.

“And because we got a very small budget [for 2023], we need to spend it very, very prudently and very, very wisely po. So what we’re doing, is we are investing actually in the areas that would have the most profound effect on the population, and these are the GIDA areas,” Uy said.

“So these are some of the strategic approaches that we are taking in order to maximize whatever very limited funds that we have in order to deliver digitalization,” Uy added.

Uy had pointed to what he called his office’s “limited” budget for digitalization after Villafuerte asked him during the public hearing how much the DICT needs to fully digitalize the country to provide the needed bandwidth for Luzon and the Visayas and Mindanao.

The DICT secretary said, “Well, our estimate ho is about P100 billion,” to which Villafuerte replied that means the DICT would need an annual budget of around P20 billion over the next five years for it to complete its digitalization task by the end of the Marcos administration.

Villafuerte then asked how much has been allotted for the DICT’s digitalization program in 2023, and Uy said: “P2.5 billion po.”

When Villafuerte remarked that the DICT would have difficulty meeting its five-year digitalization target with a 2023 budget of P2.5 billion only instead of an ideal P20 billion, Uy said: “Actually, we’re hoping po that the reason that we had a small budget this coming year was because of the very low utilization and absorptive capacity of my predecessor.”

“And so that’s going to change significantly po this year, and under the new administration, the budget that has been provided will definitely not be enough and we will be able to prove that the utilization rate would be much, much more in the coming years,” he added.

Uy then said “that’s correct” when Villafuerte asked him to confirm a report that Facebook has signed a deal with the government to provide the bandwidth, and is asking permission to put underground cables in the area passing the Philippine sea in exchange for providing that free bandwidth.

Uy explained that under this deal, FaceBook would provide the bandwidth for Luzon from Laoag City to Quezon City, which “will be a very good start” as “we’re expecting it to go live probably about middle of next year.”

As that will just be Phase 1 of the deal, he told Villafuerte, as Phase 2 of this project with FaceBook is to provide the bandwidth for the rest of Metro Manila up to the Bicol region.

When Villafuerte asked when Phase 2 would happen, Uy said, “That will be a year after the first phase comes live, so we’re looking at 2024.”