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Nationwide free WiFi project: Better without Speedcast?




Malacañang on Tuesday backed the decision of Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to boot out Speedcast from the P1.3-billion nationwide free WiFi project.

Information and Communications Technology Secretary Gregorio Honasan II told the Tribune on Monday that he had asked the UNDP to return the fund earmarked for the free WiFi program to enable the DICT “fast track” its implementation.

[Related story: Palace wants Speedcast dropped]

The decision came hours after presidential spokesperson Secretary Harry Roque said the chief executive wants Speedcast out of the project over its “unsatisfactory” performance in installing internet sites across the country.

Sought for comment on the development, Roque, one of the primary authors of the free WiFi law, said the move won’t affect the rollout of the project.

“I think it is very clear that since the right to connectivity and to the internet is a human right, the delay on the law’s implementation is unacceptable,” he said.

“There would be no effect. Perhaps it will even hasten it,” Roque added.

He noted that of the 8,453 live sites nationwide, 4,305 live sites were put up by the DICT in 2020 alone, a year after Honasan’s appointment as department chief.

The figure was a 500-percent increase compared to the annual average for the past four years of the program without Honasan at the helm.

Honasan, a former military chief, has said he “immediately sought to build up its internal capacity, manpower, and resources” to carry out the DICT’s projects, following his appointment as department secretary in July 2019.

The rollout of the landmark WiFi project began in September 2018, with DICT Undersecretary Eliseo Rio heading the department. He left in May 2020 and has since taken a hands-off stance in monitoring the progress of its implementation.

Rio sealed a partnership with the UNDP for the program and placed at its disposal the P1.29 billion funds earmarked for the project, claiming DICT as incapable of implementing the project on its own at that time.

The Commission on Audit rejected this in a 2019 report, stating that the DICT failed to have “insufficient documentation” to prove empirical data to show it lacked the capacity to spearhead the project.

From a list of bidders, the UNDP chose Hong Kong-based Speedcast — which claims that it has “more satellite capacity than any other service provider combined” — as its contractor.

Duterte’s law authorized the DICT to partner with the private sector to implement the WiFi program.

Providing accessible and fast internet was among his promises in his first State of the Nation Address in 2016.