Monday, 16 July 2012 02:30
By caribarena news
The recent announcement of the GATE project was marketed as a "major", "historic", "game changing" initiative that would change the face of Antigua and Barbuda forever. However, just how effective and significant the GATE project will really be needs a more detailed breakdown.
The backbone of the GATE project is Digicel's soon-to-come 4G LTE network. Basically, 4G LTE is a network that allows phones, laptops, and any compatible device to get high speed internet anywhere. Whether you are at home, on the road, or at the beach, you can get high speed internet (assuming the provider has good coverage).
The primary advantage of 4G was for social interaction. Watching youtube videos, uploading photos to Facebook, and calling on Skype all from a smartphone drove the market appeal in the United States, giving birth to the 4G LTE technology. So all 4G LTE really does is provide fast access to the internet anywhere.
At Thursday's announcement, the Government Assisted Technology Endeavour (GATE), consisting of four components, was basically various ways of implementing and leveraging Digicel's 4G network.
One of the major components of the GATE program was "e-Education computer tablets and e-Education connectivity". Putting big words aside, the Government are buying thousands of Tablets (like the iPad), hooking them up to 4G, and giving them to students. Minister of IT Dr. Edmond Mansoor said during the press conference that Digicel had donated $6.75 Million towards the Tablet fund, in which 6,000 tablets will initially be purchased.
This raises two important questions. Firstly, why Tablets, and secondly, why 4G?
The Minister said that the Tablets will be manufacturered by Samsung and compatible with 4G. However, tablets still do not support the same level of word processing, ease of use, and compatibility with e-learning programs that laptops do.
One Laptop per Child is a global organization, from which programs like the GATE project can receive fully capable laptops that are built tough and designed for educational purposes for the price of $200 USD. With $6.75 Million ECD, the Government could purchase approximately 12,500 such laptops.
So why use Tablets? Tablets are easy to break, incompatible with most if not all e-learning systems, and limited in terms of word processing and ease of use. Tablets are also expensive when compared to the One Laptop per Child Laptop, and offer less compatibility and features.
And now for the second question, why 4G?
Internet is not something new to Antigua and Barbuda. The Government do not need 4G technology to equip schools with laptops and internet, even if the entire campus has to be covered. Why didn't the Ministry instead implement this solution with APUA's ADSL technology? Or LIME's wireless internet?
Why did the Government choose to leave the schools without internet and devices, and wait for Digicel's 4G network in order to purchase tablets that will work on Digicel's network, when the technology has already been in Antigua and Barbuda for years?
Putting laptops in the hands of students, and giving them internet connectivity, is a fantastic initiative. But why has it been so delayed? Also, why is the Government building so heavily on Digicel?
After the Government experience with APC, in which many officials, notably Prime Minister Dr. Baldwin Spencer, promised that the Government would never rely on private groups for essential services, why is Digicel being given such a huge project?
Why isn't APUA instead being harnessed? APUA have $15 Million worth of 4G LTE equipment awaiting installation in Antigua and Barbuda. Why don't the Government instead support APUA's attempts to establish a 4G network, and then the Government and people will "own" the 4G network?
The Minister said that, "the connectivity on an annual basis to these 6,000 students is valued at $14.3 million, and over the 5 years, the connectivity will be worth $71 million." These Millions of dollars are going to Digicel, and by extension, leaving the country, when instead they can be payed to APUA, and circulate within the economy.
And Digicel's services are not only being harnessed in schools, but also in "the Passport Office, Immigration Department, Lands and Survey Department, High Court Registry, Mt. St. John’s Medical Centre, and District Medical Clinics".
While there is still debate about Private vs. Publicly-owned essential services, the Government took the position that essential services should be owned and controlled by the Government. So why are the Government deliberately breaking their own policy for Digicel, particularly in crucial areas such as the Immigration Department, Passport Office, and MSJMC?
"This is a major, major, major, major development in how Government partners with the private sector to propel Antigua and Barbuda forwards ladies and gentlemen," were the exact words used by Minister Mansoor during the announcement.
Also, who is paying Digicel the $14.3 million a year for students to have 4G connectivity? The Government seem to be the party responsible, as the Minister said that this connectivity had been "pre-negotiated" between the Government and Digicel.
And if the Government fail to pay Digicel, will Digicel disconnect the students and various Government departments? Business is Business, and there is no reason or indication that Digicel will donate this connectivity.
Beyond the e-Education, there are more interesting points made by the Minister during his speech. He said, "1000 dongles will be provisioned, Mr. Minister of Finance, with 4G LTE connectivity, and we will make sure the top 1000 people in Government get trained in the use of this technology and more importantly will have access to the Government platform and have access to the internet 24/7, 365."
A dongle is a device that looks like a USB flash drive, but allows you to connect to network or information. So what the Minister is saying that 1000 of these small devices will be given that will allow Government officials to connect to the 4G network and access the internet at any time.
There is very little complication in the use of dongles. Modern dongles are plug-and-play devices, requiring no interaction from the user. So what training the persons will need to receive, beyond connecting the dongle to a USB port, is unclear. Further, all these devices do is give Government officials or workers access to the internet, so unless there is a powerful online platform for them to work on, the dongles will probably be used for Youtube and Facebook.
The term "e-Government", which was tossed around carelessly during the announcement, doesn't refer to Government officials having 4G on their laptops or devices. e-Government solutions involve computerizing of whole Ministries. Why isn't the police force computerized? The DCA? Is this Ministry of Finance computerized? Why can't people go online and see all the active projects and costs that the Government is currently involved in?
These are some example of true e-Government technology. Why don't the Ministry spend time in developing and computerizing the Government and deploying real-world, effective solutions? It seems the Ministry is too busy finding ways to get people on Digicel's 4G network to engage in any of these crucial development tasks.
The Government seems to be over-stressing and exaggerating the uses of 4G networks, and while it could be said that the GATE initiative is a good concept, there are many issues and questions that need to be answered.