The I.C.T. connectivity debate. Are our priorities in the right place?

Issues relating to Information and Communications Technology [I.C.T.] and the Government’s track record in enabling citizens to capitalise on the benefits of this infrastructure were raised on the floor of Parliament this week.

On Monday the Member of Parliament for Salega East, Olo Fiti Vaai, questioned the viability of the Government’s SchoolNet and Community Access Project and told the Parliament that he is only aware of two schools in Savai'i that are currently connected to the online learning portal.

He added that a primary and secondary school in his constituency are among a host of educational institutions on the island that cannot access SchoolNet.

Another Government-owned I.C.T. project also came under scrutiny with Olo claiming that the Samoa National Broadband Highway [S.N.B.H.] is under-utilised, as he says only two district hospitals on Savai’i use the technology.

But the Minister of Communication, Information and Technology, Afamasaga Rico Tupai, disagreed with Olo and claimed 200-plus schools on both Upolu and Savai’i are connected to the SchoolNet and Community Access Project.

He also pointed to “damaged machines” and the poor computer literacy of elderly teachers as some of the hurdles affecting the SchoolNet and Community Access Project.

“The problem could be due to the machines being damaged or that there are not enough machines,” Afamasaga told Parliament on Monday. “The other difficulty faced by the Ministry [of Education] is that most elderly teachers find it hard to navigate on the computer and the internet platform for students.” 

Afamasaga has noted the concerns highlighted by the MP for Salega East and assured him that an inspection will be done at the educational institutions, in order to verify the concerns raised by Olo.

Machines [computer workstations] will also be deployed in the near future for the health sector, according to the Minister, who then blamed the delay in the installation of the workstations on the coronavirus [COVID-19] global pandemic.

But not before the Minister of Education, Sports and Culture, Luau Keneti Sio, admitted in Parliament on Tuesday that the online portal set up under the SchoolNet and Community Access Project is outdated. 

The admission by Loau appears to show a disconnect between the M.E.S.C. and the Afamasaga’s Ministry, in relation to the SchoolNet and Community Access Project.

For two multimillion tala projects funded by a grant from the Asian Development Bank [A.D.B.] and a bank loan, you would have thought that the Government would be on the ball, in terms of monitoring to ensure that the two projects delivered on their objectives.

Based on A.D.B. documentation, the 2007–2015 SchoolNet and Community Access Project was funded by an A.D.B. grant to the tune of US$5.9 million [$15.9 million tala], and the 2011–2014 S.N.B.H. was made possible courtesy of a US$20 million [$53.9 million tala] loan from the Chinese government’s Exim Bank. Both projects had total funding of $69.8 million tala courtesy of the A.D.B. and China’s Exim Bank. 

Assurances by Afamasaga that his Ministry will now inspect all schools to verify Olo’s claims are good to hear, but the Minister should have all that information, including data on how many schools and students are online at the touch of a button. 

In today’s day and age we would have expected the C.E.O. of his Ministry to have emailed or WhatsApp the latest information on that project directly to Afamasaga’s phone, as soon as Olo mentioned the SchoolNet and Community Access Project and gave details of what he claims are its shortcomings.

Nonetheless it is disappointing to hear from Olo that only two district hospitals are hooked up to the S.N.B.H., which by the way is paid for by a loan that Samoa would be making debt repayments for to this very day.

And six years after the project to set up the S.N.B.H. in the country concluded, we would have thought that it would be all systems go for Government offices and bureaucrats to access the I.C.T. infrastructure to assist information flow including “mapping the outbreak of diseases and health epidemics.”

But revelations by Afamasaga that the “machines for the health sector” are being commissioned and will be ready “in the near future” points to negligence by his Ministry to utilise the network, especially at a critical time like the 2019–2020 measles epidemic when the sharing of data in realtime would have been crucial in the fight against the epidemic.

Can the Minister tell the citizens what he exactly means when he says in the near future knowing fully well that the machines would assist the Ministry of Health [M.O.H.] improve health outcomes and therefore save lives?

Amidst the above challenges that continues to lay bare the Government’s track record in harnessing the benefits of the I.C.T., Afamasaga was elated to announce to Parliament on Monday the completion of the laying of the 3,700km Manatua cable, which will serve as a backup to the Tui Samoa Cable that the country currently uses.

The benefits of having two submarine cables to increase internet connectivity in Samoa are immense and should have a ripple effect on commerce. 

But connectivity continues to be a major challenge for local users including the business community, despite Afamasaga’s declaration of “fast connectivity” that the new cable will now make possible. 

At the end of the day, let’s get our priorities right and ensure affordable internet connectivity to critical users such as the M.O.H., the education sector and the business community, who can then pass on the benefits to ordinary citizens.

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