How ICT is getting a bad name

Summary:The Philippines, which reached its economic peak in the 1960s but gradually went on a decline in the decades that followed, had hoped that ICT would be the vehicle that would bring back the country to its glory days when it was one of the most progressive nations in Asia.After all, ICT has made tremendous contributions to the local economy through the multi-billion BPO sector made up of call center, medical transcription, and animation industries, among others.

The Philippines, which reached its economic peak in the 1960s but gradually went on a decline in the decades that followed, had hoped that ICT would be the vehicle that would bring back the country to its glory days when it was one of the most progressive nations in Asia.

After all, ICT has made tremendous contributions to the local economy through the multi-billion BPO sector made up of call center, medical transcription, and animation industries, among others. Thus, the government has made a conscious effort to promote the country as a BPO hub and to make big-ticket investments in ICT.

One of those supposed technology investments was the National Broadband Network (NBN) deal worth US$329 million to be constructed by Chineses firm ZTE Corp., the funding of which will be sourced from a "government-to-government" loan extended by China.

The primary reason the Arroyo administration gave in pursuing the project was to address the outrageous 3 billion peso (about US$66 million) that the bureaucracy spends in communications yearly.

With a broadband infrastructure in place, it argued, Internet telephony can be used to save on communications cost. (The trouble with this argument is that the government is making it appear that its communications spending will be wiped out entirely, which is obviously not true).

Anyway, the whole 80-million population of the Philippines knows by now that this contract has become very, very controversial due to the following reasons:

-- the government is paying a large sum of money for a project it has no capability of implementing and which is better left to the care of the private sector. In fact, a research study from the University of the Philippines' School of Economics said it absolutely makes no sense for the government to compete with the private sector in this area.

-- other more qualified and better bids were allegedly ignored, particularly that of Amsterdam Holdings Inc. (AHI) and US-based Arescom, prompting American Ambassador Kristie Kenney to make the unusual step of writing to the NEDA (National Economic Coordinating Authority) which approved the agreement to remind the government to observe the rules of competitive bidding.

-- the questionable "disappearance" of the copy of the contract (or was it just an memorandum of understanding, as claimed by Department of Finance Sec. Margarito Teves and NEDA chief Neri) in a hotel room shortly after it was signed by Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Sec. Leandro Mendoza and his Chinese counterpart during the Boao Forum in China attended by Pres. Arroyo.

-- according to a newspaper account, the deal was forged through "hotel sexcapades" in China courtesy of Commission on Elections (Comelec) chair Benjamin Abalos who allegedly lobbied for it in exchange of millions of kickbacks. As president of a local golf club, Abalos does not deny he hosted officials of ZTE Corp. when the Chinese went for a visit and it was there that he "introduced" them to Sec. Teves, and Sec. Mendoza. Abalos admitted that ZTE execs took care of him when he visited the firm's headquarters in Shenzhen, China as a way of complimenting his earlier gesture. However, he denied that he was given a huge sum (the deal was allegedly overpriced by US$200 million, said to be the part of Abalos) in exchange for his lobbying.

-- the claim of Jose "Joey" De Vencia III, cofounder of the losing bidder AHI, that Abalos allegedly tried to bribe him with US$10 million just so he would walk away and no longer participate in the bidding. Abalos has vehemently denied this and called De Venecia III, son and namesake of the current speaker of the House of Representatives, a liar and said he is in the process of filing a libel case against him.

Last Sep. 11, the Supreme Court, acting on the separate petitions of Iloilo Vice-Governor Rolex Suplico and AHI issued an indefinite temporary restraining order on the government's implementation of the deal.

Just after the high tribunal issued the TRO, Pres. Arroyo said in her speech in a business forum that the government should honor agreements and contracts entered with other countries despite media attacks as long as it passed through legal procedures. This statement seemed to imply that the chief executive still supports the project even it was already evident that the deal was attended by irregularities.

Interestingly, it was the same court order which Sec. Mendoza invoked when he refused to answer queries from lawmakers during a Congressional hearing. The controversial cabinet official said he cannot comment on the project because it would be "sub judice" or would interfere with the existing TRO.

This guy's got to be hiding something. When the issue was ferociously being discussed in the public, Mendoza kept his mouth shut and refused to divulge the terms of the contract. Now that he is being asked by no less than Congress to speak up, he's using the TRO to again clam up.

Mendoza, a former police chief who seems to think that he can do anything just because he has the backing of the president, must be held accountable because he was the one who signed the contract. It is the Filipino people--not him--who would be paying the gargantuan cost of the project in the long run.

My sources have also told me that Mendoza's manipulation could be one of the reasons why Ramon Sales, the mild-mannered but ineffective head of the Commission on Information and Communications (CICT), quit his post a few weeks before the NBN issue exploded. Sales was said to be against the project and so was Abraham Abesamis, the erstwhile chair of the powerful National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), who was mysteriously fired by Malacanang.

The CICT, supposed to be the country's main ICT authority, has been rendered almost inutile by recent moves of Arroyo government when some of its vital agencies, namely NTC and Telof, were transferred to the DOTC. Moreover, the new CICT chief has not even showed his face in public since being named to the post by Pres. Arroyo.

The biggest casualty to this controversy is the computerization program of the government. Instead of being promoted as an enabler, ICT has been given a black-eye. Now, people are suspicious every time an ICT initiative is being undertaken in the public sector.

As a result of this controversy, questions have been raised lately about the propriety of the call center laboratories being built in some state colleges and universities. Although I think there's overreaction of this part, let an investigation be initiated if there’s transgressions on those contracts as well.

The same goes to the so-called twin sister of NBN--the CyberEd project of the Department of Education (Deped) worth US$465.5 million. Deped Sec. Jesli Lapus said the CyberEd program is entirely unrelated to NBN, but doubts still linger because the funding for the project is also part of the loan package from China.

The government can only blame itself for this creeping pessimism against ICT-related initiatives. The National Computer Center recently reported that from year 2003 to 2006, only five out of total of 36 projects assisted by the e-Government Fund amounting to 4.57 billion peso was completed. A sad result, indeed.

However, I'm not losing hope that we can straighten this out. It's not the technology which is faulty, but the people implementing it. Once we get rid of this, then we can be on track. We've done it--we've just convicted a corrupt former president for plunder--and we can do it again.

Topics: Government

About

Joel has been a media practitioner since 1996, starting off as a reporter and eventually becoming editor of a pioneering IT trade newspaper in Manila. He is currently one of the content producers of a Manila-based developmental website.

About

Melvin G. Calimag is currently the executive editor of an IT news website in the Philippines. Melvin has been covering the local IT beat for the last 13 years. He is currently a board member at the IT Journalists Association of the Philippines (CyberPress), and also serves as a charter member with the Philippine Science Journalists Associ... Full Bio

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