Multi-million-tala Broadband Highway aging

The Samoa National Broadband Highway may be in need of an upgrade, the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Afamasaga Rico Tupa'i, has said. 

The project linking Samoa’s schools and hospitals to the fibre-optic cable network is nearly six years old.

“I believe it’s time to look into upgrading the systems […] you can’t have technology lasting more than two, three years,” the Minister said.

His comments come after the S.N.B.H. project was questioned by Gagaifomauga No. 3 Member of Parliament, La'auli Leautea Schmidt, in the midst of a political spat over a school internet programme, run by La'auli’s political party, Fa’atuatua i le Auta Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.), E3 Samoa Trust and Netvo Samoa. 

On Wednesday, Afamasaga told the Samoa Observer he has been broadly satisfied with the 2014 project and that parts of the cable have been leased out to the phone companies for their use.

“It has played its part in terms of connecting schools and hospitals," the Minister said. “We recently signed a lease with Digicel and there is a lease being discussed with Vodafone and other I.S.P. companies that wish to lease the S.N.B.H..

“It’s a big highway, and they want to utilise some of the fibres there to serve their clients, so we have started earning money from the use of the national broadband.”

The S.N.B.H. initially cost $46 million to install, through a US$20.4 million soft loan from the Chinese Government. 

At its launch event in June 2014, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi said the goal was to extent the highway’s reach to all of Savai'i and provide 24 hours a day internet service to schools, hospitals and rural communities for Government services. 

But on Wednesday, Afamasaga was unable to provide a detailed reckoning of the project’s success, saying his Ministry had not done an accounting whether the investment had paid off.

“There are calculations to be done financially, and also value added when you talk about the connectivity for schools, hospitals and all Government offices," he said. “It’s made work easier, [given] opportunities for students, I am not quite sure how to put the dollar value on those.

“There was never any need to do that [value added calculation], as long as it has been used for that purpose we are satisfied and happy. I don’t see the need for Government to waste time trying to calculate value added.”

He said on the financial side, the Government invested in the highway for Samoa’s development, not to turn a profit. 

“The priority was always school and health, so now we have just rented it out because there is sufficient new technology coming in.”

In Parliament in June, Afamasaga said 200 schools in both islands are connected to the online facility, in response to claims from Member of Parliament, Olo Fiti Vaai, who said that just two hospitals on Savai'i are connected. 

The Minister added that he would investigate any concerns other Members raised, including that health workers who are not fully trained on maximising the internet connection. 

Last week, La'auli said his party and partners have invested in a school internet programme because the S.N.B.H. has not been sufficiently connecting Savaii schools. He said he has raised the issue several times in Parliament but it has not been changed.

“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,” he told the Samoa Observer earlier this month.

“The government kept saying that it was up and running well, but there was no internet connection for all the schools in Savai'i.”

“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.”

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