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Palace wants Speedcast dropped

MJ Blancaflor



President Rodrigo Duterte wants a multinational firm out of the P1.3-billion free WiFi project over its “unsatisfactory” performance in installing internet sites across the country and for allegedly violating Customs laws, the Palace said Monday.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque slammed Speedcast, the Australian company tapped to provide telco equipment for the government’s landmark program, over the “slow” rollout of free WiFi sites.

Roque said that the current 10,000 Internet sites were far from the government target of 120,000.

“Just to be honest. From then to now, the slow implementation of the free WiFi is alarming,” Roque said. “The government is unhappy over the performance of the contractor.”

Roque did not say anything about the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which is on top of the project. It was UNDP that hired Speedcast.

Two Tribune staff members sent questions to UNDP on Monday for a reaction, but the UNDP has yet to reply at press time.


Ball now on DICT

Roque said the government could pay Speedcast for its expenses and kick it out from the project.

He also said the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) should complete the installation of the remaining 110,000 WiFi sites without the help of an Australian firm.

[Related story: DICT tells UNDP: Return our money]

“Due to the latest controversy, the position of the President and the DICT is to stop the involvement of this foreign contractor. We could return their money and the DICT could complete the project on its own,” Roque said in the news conference.

The DICT, Roque said, should take the necessary steps to remove Speedcast out of the picture to fast-track the implementation of the free WiFi in public places and state universities.

He cited a report showing that the department rolled out a total of 4,305 live sites in 2020 alone, a 500-percent increase compared to the annual average for the past four years of the program.

“Our position is that the DICT should pay the foreign contractor for (its) installed sites, but (it) should hasten the installation of the remaining free WiFi sites needed,” Roque said.


All probes welcomed

The Palace welcomed the investigations intended to be launched by other departments under the Executive branch over the project, since Speedcast was accused of smuggling and bribery.

Customs inspectors caught Speedcast six times for undervaluing its shipment and paid government personnel to get away with it, based on documents obtained by Daily Tribune.

“It’s being investigated now by the DICT and we support any further investigation to be conducted by the legislative branch of government as part of their oversight functions,” Roque said.
Asked by Tribune whether the Palace will launch its own investigation on the matter, Roque said: “Yes.” He did not elaborate.

The official noted that the Australian firm could be slapped with criminal charges under the Customs and Tariff Code for undervaluing telco equipment and bribing Customs workers for the immediate release of the cargo, not just once, but six times.

Roque said Speedcast should face Customs officials.

“Our Customs and Tariff Code has a penal clause which states that those who will violate it, including those who would undervalue their shipment, could face criminal charges,” he said.

Tribune reported about the delays and anomalies in the project last week after it got hold of the 12 April report of Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero, which detailed Speedcast’s smuggling and bribery deals.

Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate Committee on Public Services, and Partylist Rep. Michael Aglipay, chair of the House Committee on Good Government and Accountability, expressed last week their intent to launch separate investigation in their respective chambers to “assess if there is malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance” on the project.


Right to connectivity

Despite the issues hounding the project, the Palace assured the public that the Duterte administration will fulfill its promise in building 120,000 WiFi sites across the country or at least “close to the target.”

Roque acknowledged that the government needs to “double” its efforts to build more free WiFi sites as the demand for accessible and efficient internet services grows amid the pandemic.

“The administration of President Duterte should fulfill it immediately. We have one year to go, and considering that we built 10,000 sites out of the 120,000 sites needed, we need to double our efforts,” he said.

“Given the speed of the DICT right now, we have confidence that we can meet at least close to the target if not 110,000 more sites,” said Roque, who was one of the primary authors of the free WiFi law.

Access to the Internet, the official also said, could be considered a human right to connectivity.

In August 2017, President Duterte approved Republic Act 10929 or the P1.3 billion project in a bid to make the internet accessible in all public places in the country.


What went before

Launched in 2018, the DICT, then led by now-resigned Undersecretary Eliseo Rio, tapped the help of the UNDP to expedite the rollout of the project and to aid in the capacity-building initiatives of the government. The multilateral agency became the government’s implementing partner for the landmark program.

The DICT had placed at UNDP the disposal of the P1.29 billion funds earmarked for the project, even if the Commission on Audit questioned the supposed “insufficient documentation” to prove the propriety and necessity of the partnership.

Late last week, Speedcast’s consignee, Philcomsat, which is partly owned by the government, asked the UNDP to kick out Speedcast from the project. The UNDP defended Speedcast, its choice contractor from a list of bidders.

Rio expressed support. On Monday, he thanked the Palace for not blaming him over the project delays.

“The project was right on track when I left DICT on 22 May 2020, with some adjustment on the completion date from the end of December 2020 to June 2021, because of the lockdown that caused delay to any project, public or private. DICT did not put any priority on completing the project. Out of the 6,000 sites, only around 900 sites were completed as of this date,” he said.

“At least the Palace does not blame me for the delay. If I were still there, I could have installed all 6,000 sites by June this year. This problem in misdeclaration of import duties should not be a reason for any delay. The DICT neglected this project after I left. I can face any investigation and clear myself of any allegation,” he added.

UNDP had released P29 million in financial assistance in support of the project, but it would supposedly earn in return some P64 million in service fees, according to a summary of the Commission on Audit’s report obtained by Daily Tribune.