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Trouble with e-Learning project

Gov’t to replace Universal Access Fund

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY Observer senior reporter dunkleya@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, April 25, 2011    

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THE Government has said it will be replacing the Universal Access Fund that was established in 2005 to finance the e-Learning Jamaica (e-Ljam) project.

"We are under severe scrutiny, we are the subject of annual reports and my own view is that the Universal Access Fund has a finite life. We are now giving consideration to replacing it, but what replaces it will have to be rid of what is seen as the discriminatory element in how it is applied," Prime Minister Bruce Golding said while answering questions from Opposition spokesman on technology Phillip Paulwell during last Tuesday's sitting of the Standing Finance Committee of Parliament.

"We need to replace it, because we are moving beyond even the original scope of the e-Learning programme which it supports, and it's something we feel we need to continue. It is critically important in bringing rural communities into the highway of communication and information flow," Golding noted.

The Universal Access Fund, (UAF), fuelled by a cess charged on overseas companies for telephone calls terminating in Jamaica, is the main source of funding for the e-Learning project aimed at creating an islandwide broadband network allowing public access through schools, public libraries, post offices and other agencies.

The UAF was established in 2005 under Paulwell's watch.

But Golding said because certain strictures in the programme are forcing changes.

"When e-Learning goes into a school to install the computers, in most of the schools that they go into, particularly in rural areas, the school is not in a position to receive the computers, and when we have sought to spend some of that money to create a computer room to put the computers, we are told that we are going outside the mandate of the programme," he told the cCommittee.

"It is fraught with a lot of difficulties, we are well-advanced in our thinking that we can't be playing hide and seek with the US trade people every year on this matter."

"We have a formulation as to how we can do this thing in such a way that it can't be challenged. But, it is going to have to, in a sense, be broadening the scope of its application and perhaps reducing the level of that imposition," he continued.

In the meantime, contributions to the fund are also a matter of concern. The committee was told that since it was established, some $7.8 billion has flowed into the UAF. Last year $1.23 billion was collected.

Noting the "fall-off in the collection rate", Paulwell said, "something has to be done to enable greater accountability in terms of those funds".

"One of the problems the Government faces is the fact that there are leakages in that the telephone companies are not accounting for all the minutes that are flowing into the country," he pointed out.

At the fund's launch, the then-government faced staunch resistance from US-based telecommunications providers who were reluctant to pay the levy on calls originating in that country and terminating in Jamaica.

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