UNDP welcomes House resolution to probe 'irregularities' in P1.36-B free wi-fi project

Published June 1, 2021, 5:03 PM

by Roy Mabasa

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on Tuesday welcomed the filing of a resolution before the House of Representatives seeking to investigate the alleged irregularities and setbacks on the P1.36 billion free-Wi-Fi project implemented in partnership with the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP website)

“Given our commitment to transparency, accountability and efficiency, we affirm our commitment to support the review of the DICT-UNDP Free Wi-Fi for All project to bring clarity to the issues raised,” the UNDP said in a statement.

The free Wi-Fi project initially hit a snag in 2019 when the Commission on Audit (COA) flagged the Pipol Konek Free Wi-Fi Internet Access in Public Places project, stating that the contract gave the private sector, specifically the UNDP, more power over the program than it legally should.

In a letter to COA in August 2019, the DICT mentioned that the “DICT-UNDP partnership is being undertaken to accelerate the delivery of the Free Public Wi-Fi project, noting, among other things, the repeated challenges encountered by DICT in rolling-out the project.”

The UNDP explained that under the partnership, the DICT transferred P1.36 billion in three tranches to UNDP Philippines through a signed Financing Agreement in September 2018. This arrangement allows UNDP to provide assistance to DICT in the form of development support services, towards the implementation of its priority programs.

“It does not constitute a donation to UNDP,” the agency stressed.

The possibility to transfer government resources to UNDP is covered by the 1977 Standard Basic Assistance Agreement (SBAA) signed between UNDP and the Philippines, a treaty-level agreement ratified by the Senate of the Philippines.

The DICT chose to partner with UNDP given its global experience and expertise in areas such as complex program oversight, its high standards of quality assurance, and its capability to design for and implement the most appropriate technologies in remote and disadvantaged areas, establishing citizen monitoring mechanisms, and to support DICT in building its systems and capacity.

With the technical help of the UNDP, the DICT chose the Australian-based Speedcast to handle Phases 1 and 2 of the free Wi-Fi project. Speedcast later tapped the semi-government-owned Philcomsat as its sub-contractor and consignee.

The UNDP cited that pandemic restrictions such as mobility limitations and commercial challenges were among the causes of delays faced by the contractor and its sub-contractor particularly in site activation.

The UNDP said all these challenges have been regularly communicated to, and discussed with, DICT.

“However, despite joint attempts to bring the parties to a mutual understanding with a series of re-negotiated catch-up plans submitted for the approval of DICT, Philcomsat and Speedcast did not manage to iron out their differences,” the UNDP said in the statement.

Earlier, the DICT decided to terminate its agreement with the UNDP and asked for the return of the funds earmarked for the free Wi-Fi project, saying it is capable to finish the project on its own.

As of 27 May 2021, the UNDP said they have returned the first amount of about P284 million to DICT, through the Bureau of Treasury account, following the termination of contract mutually agreed with Speedcast on May 10, 2021 that relates to Phase 2 of the project.

With the termination of the agreement, the UNDP said it has expressed to DICT the need to ensure that the 882 free Wi-Fi sites, installed and activated by the project, continue to provide services to the 350,000 citizens in those geographically isolated and remote areas.

“UNDP believes that in order to ‘leave no one behind’, we must maintain our commitment to working in complex contexts in some of the most challenging places across the world. In the same vein, UNDP Philippines remains dedicated to working with our partners in harnessing technology to address the digital divide and to create digital solutions to reach marginalized and vulnerable communities, during the pandemic and beyond,” the UN agency said.