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E-Learning, funding companies dismiss conflict of interest concern

BY LUKE DOUGLAS Senior staff reporter douglasl@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, October 24, 2012    

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THE Government entities that fund and provide Internet services free of cost to schools and other public organisations say there is no conflict of interest arising from the fact that representatives of the telecommunications companies are on their boards of directors.

Chief executive officer of the Universal Service Fund (USF, formerly the Universal Access Fund), Hugh Cross, and chairman of e-Learning Jamaica Company Ltd, Yvonne McCalla-Sobers both say no advantage can be derived from having representatives of telecoms companies LIME, Digicel and Flow/Columbus Business Systems on their boards.

Questions had been raised as to whether the telecoms entities, which provide broadband Internet services, could benefit from the appointments to the boards of the two entities.

The e-Learning Jamaica (e-LJam) Project involves the use of a variety of information, communication and technology (ICT)-based applications and processes to introduce new approaches to impart instruction, stimulate learning and deliver education to students.

E-LJam's board includes chairman of the Digicel Foundation Lisa Lewis.

The USF is authorised to collect a levy on overseas telephone calls to facilitate the provision of universal access to the information superhighway by accelerating the deployment of broadband services islandwide.

In an e-mail responding to questions from the Jamaica Observer, Cross said all three terminating carriers (LIME, Digicel and Flow) are represented on the USF's board of management.

Asked what was in place to ensure that none of the telecoms companies has an unfair advantage in bidding to provide services funded by the USF, Cross said the only tender call issued by the USF in which they would have parochial interest was the islandwide broadband network.

"Two terminating carriers submitted bids and they played no role in the adjudication of the bids. Eventually, contracts for the network were awarded to both," Cross said in his response. "We procure Internet services from Internet service providers for our community Internet services facilities by way of the best offer in each case and the terminating carriers are not involved in those selection processes. The Government's procurement guidelines are scrupulously adhered to in all our procurement endeavours."

The CEO said further that equipment and services are procured through competitive bidding and the terminating carriers are not involved in the selection process.

Meanwhile, responding to the conflict of interest concern, McCalla-Sobers said she had not heard of any complaints from any entity about the presence of a Digicel staff member on the e-LJam board.

"They have not voiced it," McCalla-Sobers said.

Also, a senior spokesperson in the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining said there was no possibility of conflict of interest as Lewis was on the e-LJam board in her capacity as chair of the Digicel Foundation.

"The Digicel Foundation has been very supportive in their effort at incorporating technology in education," the spokesperson said.

The Government's information arm, the Jamaica Information Service, reported Cross as saying last May that the implementation of the islandwide broadband network is to be executed over the next five years, at a cost of $543 million, by communications firms Flow and LIME.

The project includes providing access to a central server facility, which will host a wide range of educational materials, accessible to users through local area networks established in public high schools throughout the country.

The initiative will also provide Internet access to connected schools, post offices, and libraries, and will facilitate interconnectivity among the institutions.

Cross said the service will initially be rolled out in 278 institutions, comprising 162 schools, 38 public libraries, and 78 post offices.

He disclosed that Flow, which was awarded a $234.3-million contract, has responsibility for the island's northern segment, while LIME will undertake similar work along the island's southern corridor, at a cost of just over $309 million.

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