‘No techie’ Honasan hopes to push right buttons as new DICT chief
MANILA, Philippines — After his maiden press conference as the new secretary of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) on Tuesday last week, Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan II was asked to share his mobile number.
Honasan readily told reporters how to reach his “secure line,” possibly referring to what former colleagues in the Senate jokingly called his “Jurassic” Nokia 3210 — a throwback to an early era of mobile devices.
“If you want … props, then here’s my smartphone number,” said Honasan, who was seen earlier that day holding a modern phone.
The quip is a nod to the popular perception that the 71-year-old former military officer, mutineer and longtime senator is uncomfortable with technology. To his critics, this adds to the list of reasons that he is unfit to run the DICT.
Not a tech expert
During the press conference, Honasan honestly admitted he was not a technical expert. The law that created the DICT, or Republic Act No. 10844, required the department secretary to have at least seven years of expertise in information and communications technology (ICT) or its related infrastructure for modern computing.
Instead, he highlighted his management skills, political savvy and long years in public service.
His shortcomings notwithstanding, Honasan promised to retain qualified people in the DICT and hire competent outsiders. He said he was authorized by President Duterte to reorganize the department.
Among those staying in the DICT is his immediate predecessor, former officer in charge Eliseo Rio Jr., a former Army general with a strong background in military intelligence, electronics and communications. Rio was appointed last week as information and communications technology undersecretary for operations.
Honasan also emphasized continuity and sustainability in the DICT’s programs.
His top priorities include bringing free internet access to public areas across the country in line with Republic Act No. 10929. The main purpose of his press conference at Quirino Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City was to announce the inauguration of a free Wi-Fi access point at the government hospital.
Honasan also pledged to pursue existing programs, such as the national broadband project, which would connect government agencies and provide secure and inexpensive communications services across the country.
Much is expected from the communications technology secretary.
The department is responsible for planning, coordinating and implementing the country’s ICT agenda. This includes coming up with policies to improve connectivity across the country, boost industry competitiveness, promote consumer protection and cybersecurity.
Info security expert
Honasan said he was prepared to face the powerful Commission on Appointments for his confirmation.
“If there are questions about my technical competence, maybe it’s up for debate. But I would put these credentials — 44 years of public service — on the table and let the appointing authority decide,” he said.
Honasan’s allies in the Senate have vouched for his competence as DICT chief, leading some observers to say that his confirmation is a forgone conclusion.
A formidable ally closer to home is Rio, Honasan’s former mentor in the military.
According to Rio, the former senator is an expert in information security management, which is among the disciplines cited under the DICT law. He said Honasan honed these skills during the military rebellion that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos while the former Army colonel was an aide-de-camp to former Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile.
“How secure was their information? It was the most secure even by the standards of the Armed Forces,” Rio said.
Honasan and Rio share a long history away from public service. Both are baptismal “godbrothers” and childhood friends. Those ties will come into play as the pair work together at the DICT.
Honasan coined their tandem as the “two lolos.”
According to Rio, Honasan brings valuable management expertise to the DICT, while he provides the technical experience.
The transition at the DICT comes amid long-running challenges. The Philippines still lags behind its neighbors in terms of internet quality and cost, while regulatory hurdles continue to hobble the rollout of crucial telecommunications infrastructure, which is mostly handled by the private sector.
Honasan will now oversee projects implemented during the tenure of Rio, who also used to head the National Telecommunications Commission.
These key programs include the rollout of the third telco, the China Telecom-backed Mislatel Consortium, as well as the common tower initiative, which involves the construction of around 50,000 cell towers over the next decade.
Honasan said the government would ensure a level playing field in business and that he was open to a fourth, or even fifth, telco.
For ICT advocates, Honasan’s entry as the third information and communications technology secretary in as many years opens up another opportunity to pursue reforms.
“We agree with Secretary Honasan’s pronouncement that his role is top management of DICT,” said Pierre Galla, cofounder of advocacy group Democracy.Net.PH.
“As such, we are hopeful that he can provide answers to where he will take Philippine ICT. In particular, we would hope to soon learn about his management plan and his ICT rights, governance, development and security agenda,” he added.
Galla is hoping that legislative reforms will also happen, citing the proposed Open Access in Data Transmission Act, the Spectrum Management Reform Act, the CATV Industry Development Act, amendments to the Public Telecommunications Act and the Public Service Act, among others.
Asked about support from lawmakers, Honasan said there was a “solid wall” to lean on in the Senate.
Industry observers say there are also concerns in the areas of cybersecurity and cyberdefense as governments and businesses increasingly embrace the digital shift to bolster efficiency and bring down costs.
On Huawei threat
Consistent with the Duterte administration’s warmer ties with China, Honasan took a moderate view on the allegations by the United States government that equipment made by Chinese tech giant Huawei posed a national security threat.
He suggested that that issue had more to do with the economic rivalry between the two countries.
But Honasan said the DICT would not neglect the country’s digital security and that “eventually, we have to wave the Philippine flag.”
People close to Honasan said the former lawmaker was committed to understanding changes in technology, more than operating a smartphone.
“I realize that at 71, I have more yesterdays than tomorrows, but I think vision will do,” said Honasan, adding that he was taking on the job for his children, his five grandchildren and the future generation of Filipinos.
“That should be an adequate driving force [for me] to develop some momentum,” he added. “If that is not enough, talk to the appointing authority so I can be replaced tomorrow.”
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