Monday, September 24, 2007

Technical questions on DepEd's Cyber Education Project

THE “suspension” of the controversial national broadband network (NBN) and the cyber education project (CEP) probably signals that these deals with the Chinese government are dead.

They should be. It was obvious right after the second day of hearings that there is no way the government could justify these deals in financial, technical and moral terms. The continuation of the hearings will probably confirm peoples’ suspicion all along—that they are all questionable deals attended by anomaly and corruption.

On the NBN, there was actually no need to “suspend” it because the Supreme Court had already issued a temporary restraining order. But the “suspension” from Malacañang signals a political retreat for which there is no recovery. It’s a political gambit hoping that the anger and frustration the people feel about this anomaly would somehow dissipate.

Not only should the senators continue to sort out the whole NBN mess; they should also examine the whole package more closely.

The CEP’s propagandists are saying that the project suffered collateral damage from the NBN brouhaha. We don’t think so. The CEP also carries many of NBN’s original sins: no competitive bidding, lack of transparency and no independent technical evaluation. And it involves an even bigger amount: $500 million, which we are going to pay in the next 20 years.

If the NBN is a shark, therefore, the CEP is a probably a great white shark!

Make no mistake about it: we are not against an Internet-based education per se. We believe that the country needs to upgrade its educational system and Internet-based education, or something to boost distance learning would help.

Of course, in a list of priorities, it’s also a question whether or not a satellite-based network should prevail over basic issues like teacher training, curriculum reform or providing the basic things like books and classrooms. But this question is secondary to the bigger issue of whether or not the CEP had also been tainted by bribery.

Analysts think this way because the CEP came to the signing table in China on April 21 despite many unresolved issues. Even the technical working group (TWG) from the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) had been stressing all along that the CEP suffers from many technical questions. One such issue is the “overlaps” between the NBN and the CEP that would cost the government billions of money.

On February 13 the joint National Economic and Development Authority-Investments Coordination Committee (Neda-ICC) and Neda-Cabinet group meeting in Malacañang agreed to “sort out” this issue. On February 28 the DOTC TWG released its report, saying the CEP suffers from the following problems:

1. The system will use satellite communications (SatCom) which is expensive. SatCom may not be a long-term solution and will require high operating expenditures;

2. It’s a huge infrastructure for a single user, a waste of valuable government resources;

3. The operating capability of the Department of Education (DepEd) is at issue since its core competence is in education and not satellite communications. According to the report, the DepEd “cannot change-manage to become a technology provider as it is beyond its core competence;”

4. The DepEd needs connectivity but could achieve the same not through the Internet but through an Intranet. This option is achievable through a less-expensive network configuration; and

5. The CEP, to establish its own broadband system, is directly overlapping with the NBN.

And the recommendation? It makes sense to have a single backbone for government VOIP, e-governance and e-learning. The DepEd may implement its e-learning programs using the NBN “as provider for its transmission requirements instead of building its own backbone using satellite communications.”

In the March 26 ICC-Cabinet meeting, Lorenzo Formoso, DOTC assistant secretary, himself admitted that there is an “overlap” between the NBN and the CEP projects and that the two are going to be “underutilized.” Then-Neda Director General Romulo Neri supported Formoso, saying the cost of the overlap would reach P4 billion to P5 billion.

In the same meeting Formoso expressed reservations about the CEP, saying that the satellite technology to be used by the CEP “has not been widely used as a main transmission mode given cost-related considerations.”

So why did the government push through with the project despite reservations among the technical guys and the Cabinet?

The minutes of the March 26 meeting says: “Secretary Neri noted that the Chinese government’s position [is] that the NBN and the cyber education project be treated separately. He added that while the Chinese Embassy, in a letter, has expressed readiness to show flexibility should DepEd and DOTC reach an agreement, Secretary [Jesli] Lapus has already indicated his preference that the CEP network be dedicated to education. Secretary [Leandro] Mendoza, he shared, has also expressed readiness to remove schools as part of the NBN project design.”

That statement seems to mean that despite serious reservations from the Cabinet and the technical guys, the CEP and the NBN should proceed because the Chinese government wanted them as separate projects; Lapus wanted his CEP badly no matter what; and Mendoza also wanted his own NBN—all with no bidding and no transparency. It’s a classic quid pro quo “for the boys” deal that would make a few bureaucrats happy at the expense of taxpayers who are going to suffer a higher debt burden in the next 20 years.

Yes, the Senate investigation should continue. It should give an equally critical look at the CEP and let the ax fall on those who deserve it.

1 comment:

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