Closing the internet gap: $2 million trial
Fewer than one-third of schools in Savai’i have reliable internet connections with the rest facing major access issues, a gulf the Government is hoping to bridge with a new pilot programme.
The inability of a majority of schools to fully access internet services is despite the fact that the Government has already poured millions into “schoolnet” projects in the past seeking to raise information and communications technology standards on the big island.
The ongoing gap inspired a $2 million fund allocated under the Ministry of Communications Information Technology 2021-2022 fiscal year budget to go towards a pilot programme giving certain schools internet access for free.
The Minister in charge of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (M.C.I.T.), Toelupe Poumulinuku Onesemo, recently told Parliament that only 13 schools in Savaii have access to internet connections; 30 others have no access despite notionally being connected.
The comment was made during the Minister’s response to questions raised in the recent budget debate.
In just six weeks in office, the Minister said the issue of internet inequality has risen up his policy priority list.
But this was countered by the former Associate Minister of M.C.I.T., Lealailepule Rimoni Aiafi, who said the Government programme was nothing news.
During his time in the Government, Lealailepule said, the I.T. Ministry provided the communications infrastructure, training and technical support to establish connections.
But he said the Ministry of Education itself is responsible for internet connections inside classrooms.
“Everything should be linked to the Ministry of Education that provides the content and curriculum because it is an initiative from [the Ministry that is] aware of the content to feed to schools,” he said.
Lealailepule said that he had thought that the funding should have come under the Ministry of Education budget rather than that of the M.C.I.T.
In response, Toelupe noted Leala’s point.
But he said the challenge is the capacity of teachers in resolving technical issues.
He said a click of the mouse can close down a school’s connection if proper networking skills are not in place.
He added that the Computer Service Limited (C.S.L.) has been advised to connect at least one computer from each school to the internet to confirm that the connection works.
The Minister also clarified what he described as unfounded reports that he has already awarded $20 million to a telecommunication company to conduct the school internet project.
He said the claims are not true and the project will be tendered like normal procedure.
The Minister of Works Transport and Infrastructure, Olo Fiti Vaa, theni interjected on a point of clarification.
Olo - who was part of the parliamentary committee that inspected the programme during the previous term of Parliament - said he has some knowledge of the issue discussed.
He alleged under Parliamentary privilege that the problem that came out of their inspection is that the C.S.L. was given funding to deal with connectivity problems but the money did not go towards fixing the problem.
He said the Government is trying to have schools connected to the Samoa National Broadband Highway but their preference is the internet connection.
Leala intervened and said that nothing is new under the sun.
He also urged the Minister against making accusations targeting C.S.L., a company not present and able to defend itself.