Scandal at DICT
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - February 10, 2020 - 12:00am

It is bad enough DICT is struggling to fulfill the promise of President Duterte for a world-class information and communications system. Now there are questions in the use of P300 million in confidential funds by the department head, Secretary Gregorio Honasan.  

According to a COA observation memorandum dated Jan. 20, the DICT advanced P100 million for confidential expenses on Nov. 22, Dec. 2 and Dec. 17 last year, or P300 million in all. The same document states that Honasan requested the funds that were advanced in his name, “for confidential expenses in connection with cybersecurity activities.”

COA also said DICT underspent for projects because funds allotted for the projects were used as confidential funds.

 Where does that put the country? Stuck in a digital blackhole, of course. And to top it all, Undersecretary Eliseo Rio, the senior DICT official who is competent and with a reputation for honesty, has resigned rather than share this public disgrace.

But the mess was expected after Duterte chose to appoint a politician, despite his lack of capability, to head DICT.

The story gets weirder. Over the weekend, DICT came out with a press release saying Honasan and Rio have smoked the peace pipe. The release also said that Rio cleared Honasan of any misuse of the funds.

I suspect the President ordered Rio not to rock the boat. The President is not inclined to get rid of Honasan but a wiff of corruption is there and he will have to spend political capital to keep him.

From my many years of being a journalist, my instinct is to believe the original and uncensored words of Rio which he voluntarily gave to Inquirer reporter Miguel Camus.

“My original position has always been [that] the DICT cannot use a confidential fund because it’s not in our mandate to do intelligence and surveillance work,” Rio said.

The DICT also released a Department Order designating Rio as Undersecretary for Operations on the National Broadband Backbone and Free WiFi/Internet Access in Public Places. Does this mean Rio is withdrawing his resignation?

It is too early to tell. Rio probably agreed to shake hands with Honasan to comply with orders from the President.

But Rio has nothing more to prove nor a career to protect. He is old, has a good reputation for honesty and capability nurtured through his military and civilian careers. If he is staying, it is probably only out of a sense of duty to finish what he has started.

As far as I know, he has not withdrawn his resignation nor does he intend to. He will likely stay long enough to see if his concerns are properly addressed.

 The confidential funds aside, Honasan is not qualified to head DICT.  Honasan has a lot to learn about digital technology and communications.

Between Honasan and Gen. Rio, the retired armed forces officer is more credible. Whatever progress DICT has made during his watch as acting secretary met headwinds when Honasan came in.

After three years and three rounds of leadership changes in DICT, the Philippines remains far behind its Asian neighbors. We are short in terms of globally acceptable standards for internet speed, coverage and affordability.

Since the time Honasan was appointed, he has not said a word on any DICT game-changing policy that will make the country and the Filipino people able participants in the digital economy. Nothing.

The previous administrations at DICT at least painted the broad strokes for the agency’s programs: The National Broadband Plan (NBP); Free WiFi; Cybersecurity; GovNet; National Government Portal.

Today, the national infostructure initiative remains hanging with the still non-operational Facebook submarine cable, envisioned to be the source of bandwidth for the national broadband infostructure, Free WiFi program, and new players, including the third telco.

Under Rio’s leadership, the DICT saw renewed vigor in the roll-out of the Free WiFi program, and initial efforts to implement key programs of the National Broadband Plan.

However, Honasan wants to change the system design of the Free WiFi program yet again. And the vendors for this program have yet to be paid. That may cause the program to falter sooner or later, and most probably discourage small players from participating in the future.

The DICT was charged with the selection of the government’s third telco and it did that, successfully.  There are already signs that this is heading into delay. The NTC, the agency supposed to be monitoring the third telco, has kept the public in the dark on Dito’s progress on compliance.

Let’s not forget that the third telco has to meet a set of performance metrics, one of the criteria for its selection. Will Honasan strictly enforce the metrics or turn a blind eye because the investors are a Chinese telco and a Davao businessman close to Duterte?

Controversy has hounded the NBP and cybersecurity program, with a couple of assistant secretaries from the past and present administrations resigning over them. The present controversy which supposedly prompted Rio to resign involves the use of confidential funds.

Confidential funds in the context of our government rings a lot of alarm bells on possibility of corruption. All we see is smoke surrounding the official explanation, but not the programs themselves. Even Rio was kept in the dark, bypassed by his own assistant secretaries. 

DICT has missed the boat, and so has the country, on many key reforms that would help ICT development, notably open access, spectrum management reform, passive-infrastructure sharing, policies to entice investment and spur competition in the ICT sector.

It was also hoped that DICT would champion changes in the electronic voting system.

Public schools all over the country are using DSL and pocket WiFis just to get a semblance of connectivity, while the DepEd is left to conduct its own bidding to reach the underserved and unserved schools – something which the DICT was supposed to do.

DICT needs a competent technically knowledgeable leader. Not a has been politician still learning how to do FaceTime.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

DICT DUTERTE
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