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Political spat over school internet programme

The Chairman of Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party, La'aulialemalietoa Leuatea Schmidt, has rejected Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi's claims that a free-wifi project designed to help schools in Samoa  "illegal" and "unsafe"   

The internet project in question is spearheaded by La'auli and F.A.S.T. in partnership with a non-governmental organisation, E3 Samoa Trust, and is being rolled out by NetVo Samoa.

But the project has irked Prime Minister Tuilaepa, sparking a fresh political row between the veteran politicians. 

"I am aware that Rah is behind this project," Tuilaepa told TV3 during his weekly programme. 

"Rah" is a name he often uses jokingly to refer to La'auli. 

"I have been told that they are working together with the company NetVo Samoa for this project. They should keep in mind that the government works in partnership with the private sector and the government is in charge of the installation of submarine cables that can be used for connectivities. 

"NetVo Samoa should be working with the office of the Regulator as well."

While Tuilaepa said he welcomes the initiative by La'auali and F.A.S.T., he said they should follow the "right process."

"I am happy to see that they are helping out," said Tuilaepa. "But the thing is, they can't install this wifis without consulting the Office of the Regulator, so they can come in and assess the work that they are doing. What if something goes wrong and it will burn down a school?"

Tuilaepa alleged that NetVo owes money to the Office of the Regulator and what they are doing in Savaii is illegal. 

"It's illegal because they are installing these satellites without informing the office of the regulator to come in and monitor these things to make sure it is safe. What they should do is, step forward and owe up to their debt by asking the office of the regulator before the Regulator reaches for their pen. 

"This is what happens when a politician comes in and tricks them into doing something that is illegal. That is one of their specialty."

But La'aulialemlietoa flatly denied all the claims by Tuilaepa. 

"The free wifi for the schools was an initiative that was born when I first found out that our schools at Sasina and Letui had no connectivity for school net and broadband internet for schools in Samoa," said La'auli. "I then looked for a way so our schools could get this service, and then we had a partnership with Netvo Samoa."

La'auli said Netvo agreed to help find a way so the students could get internet.

"After installing the free wifi in the schools for our constituency, we discovered that it worked so well for those schools. Therefore, we asked Netvo if they were willing to continue on there service so we can provide such a service for all the schools in Samoa. They accepted the proposal and agreed to install this for all the schools in Samoa."

La'auli said the issue of connectivity in schools, or the lack of, especially in the rural areas, has been raised several times in Parliament.

"I raised this issue twice in Parliament, but somehow, after visiting the schools, not only in my constituency but also in other schools across Samoa, I discovered that it wasn't working. The government kept saying that it was up and running well, but there was no internet connection for all the schools in Savai'i," he said. 

"So right now, we picked up the project, so we could help the schools not only in Savai'i but also for the whole of Samoa. So for the last three months, we have been running the installation of all the satellites, and the programme is not connected to the Cable but it connects directly to the satellites.

"So far, we have already installed free-wifi in more than 40 schools across Samoa. Soon, we will start connecting the schools. From Patamea to Asau last week, already has started with this programme.

"This provides free wifi and connectivity for the schools, that the teachers and students can use. So they can use the devices and connect to the wifi for learning materials. 

"The main goal of the project is to provide a way for all the students to access all the information needed for their students. Netvo has already implemented programmes to announce all the curriculums that are not only set up by M.E.S.C., but we have also included the curriculums for Australia and New Zealand. It could be a help for the teachers to expand their knowledge and skills in nurturing the minds of our children. 

"We have also asked Netvo to filter the websites, to make sure that the children will not have access to other sites. 

"They have already done that, so the only websites they can access are the educational sites. The benefits of the free wifi are opened from 8:00 am until 4:00 pm. This is free time for all the students. That is the first step of this project, mainly for the schools. The project will expand and be spread out in the wider community at a cheaper rate for the people. 

"It will benefit not only the students but also for the public as well." 

Laauli said he is disappointed that the Prime Minister has already discredited the project.

"We don't just do these projects by over-stepping any boundaries. Before we install any project in these schools, we first approach the school principals, school committees, and elders from each village. And only after they give us the okay, then we install the satellites in the schools," he said. 

"So when I started this project, I thought it was going to be just for our schools. But then we extended it to all the schools in Samoa. It's not only for members of F.A.S.T. No! "Whether you support F.A.S.T. or not, it will be installed for all schools in Samoa. This is not a project just for F.A.S.T. It's something that we want to do for the people of Samoa. 

"The twenty constituencies in Savai'i will have this free wifi connectivity."

La'auli then wielded the axe back to the Government questioning the Samoa National Broadband Highway and SchoolNet projects. 

"As I said before in Parliament, the School net is not working and so is the broadband," he said.  "But we have been spending money over a $100million tala if we put together the $20million tala spent on the broadband and the $15million US Dollar on the SchoolNet, and yet nothing works. 

 "But out of the pockets of this poor company, NetVo Samoa has stepped up to take on this project. The boys who are behind this company are sons of Samoa. They are the sons of Leota Siaki, a former Member of Parliament from Solosolo. They not getting anything from the schools. Not even one sene.

"F.A.S.T. is only helping them with transportations, food, and accommodations. But now the P.M. has publically announced the loans of this company. He is now twisting the project to make it look like it's a bad project. Yes, I started this project, with the hope to help the students of my constituency. 

"That is why I got up and looked for assistance. The original plan was to have wifi connections for the schools of my constituency."

The Owner and Manager of Netvo, Togisala Tony Leota, declined to respond to Tuilaepa's claims.

But he wanted to explain his involvement.

"My NGO  which is, Enhance, Engage, Empower, Samoa trust, also known as E3 Samoa Trust is in partnership with F.A.S.T. on this project," he said. "NetVo is only implementing and installing the project. It's a registered N.G.O. in Samoa."

The initiative, said Togisala, started from the time schools were closed during the measles epidemic. 

"We saw that the kids had to stay at home since the schools were shut down. There was no connectivity," he said.  "So I thought, how can I help out, what can we do? I talked to some of the schools and asked them, about the challenges they were facing, and they said that there was no connectivity, they don't have the materials. 

"It just so happened, that when we were working on a way to reach out and help the schools, La'auli and F.A.S.T. asked me for help. They said that the schools had no connectivity, and they needed help with that. 

"La'auli's constituency said there was no connectivity because the schools had no connectivity and no internet and they needed help. So, my NetVo is just implementing the project. 

"The reason why we started this, is first, for the NGO, and second, to help out the children of Samoa. 

"The purpose of this NGO we want to engage and empower our people and our kids. This is for free, meaning that nobody is paying bills here."

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