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Monday, March 4, 2024

Anti-corruption group urges UN agency, contractor to deliver free internet project

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An anti-crime and corruption watchdog asked a United Nations agency and its foreign contractor to explain the termination of phase 1, or half of the P1.36-billion government project, that will provide free internet access in remote communities across the country.

The Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption said the first phase of the Free Wifi project for 350,000 residents of the so-called geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas turned into a “scattered wasteland of expensive satellite equipment, vulnerable to vandalism and disrepair.”

VACC president Arsenio Evangelista, in a letter dated Nov. 4, 2021, asked the United Nations Development Program to set things straight and immediately address the problem, saying it is a “critical matter of nationwide public interest.”

Evangelista, in the letter to UNDP resident representative Dr. Selva Ramachandran, reminded the agency of its commitment to deliver free internet connectivity to the ‘remote and underserved areas” in the country.

“Despite the difficulties, UNDP will continue to work to reach last mile sites, in line with our mandate to leave no one behind, here in the Philippines, as well as across the world,” the VACC leader quoted the UNDP as saying in its website posting.

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Evangelista also called the attention of UNDP project contractor Speedcast Inc., an Australian telecom company, to explain the alleged violation of Customs rules on importation and taxation of its telco equipment.

Evangelista said the Department of Information and Communications Technology in 2018 signed a financing agreement with the UNDP, providing for the turnover to the UN agency full authority over the P1.36-billion “Free WiFi in Public Places” project funded by the Philippine government.

The Commission on Audit flagged the deal, claiming the DICT did not show prior proof that it is unable to implement the project itself.

The following year, the UNDP awarded the contract to Speedcast through a competitive bidding, which in turn, signed a subcontract with Philcomsat, a franchised telecom company partly owned by the government, for the project. Speedcast filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. in April 2020, five months after sealing the deal with UNDP.

Three months later, Customs alleged that Speedcast committed six counts of undervaluation, classified as “technical smuggling,” involving the firm’s importation of communications equipment.

Customs Commissioner Reynaldo Guerrero exonerated Philippine Communications Satellite Corp. from the smuggling charges, after the latter paid on behalf of Speedcast P5.27 million in deficiency taxes and interest on account of its being the co-consignee and subcontractor of the foreign UNDP contractor.

The UNDP subsequently dropped Speedcast as a contractor. The DICT was then prompted to terminate phase I of the project, without prejudice to the settlement of $1.4 million as partial payment to Speedcast for the Wifi sites installed by Philcomsat and delivered to the UNDP.

The UNDP also paid itself P65 million in “administrative fee” as stipulated in its contract with the DICT.

Apart from the national government and the almost 1,000 remote areas that lost its Free WiFi, Philcomsat, a 35-percent state owned corporation, got left with uncollected bills to Speedcast for the installation and activation of more than 900 remote sites under the UNDP project.

The standoff resulted in Speedcast’s summary shutdown of the satellite lines to all the remote sites, turning the whole project into the proverbial white elephant, Evangelista said.

Evangelista asserted that the UNDP waived its “cloak of immunity” when it signed a commercial transaction with the DICT and the Philippine government.

He called on UNDP to exert efforts to “immediately salvage, rehabilitate, restore, and operate” the desperately needed free connectivity to these plus 900 remote sites.

“UNDP’s global credibility is very much at stake here,” Evangelista said.

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