The pressure is building on the government over the deep woes of the multi-billion-dollar fibre-optic cable project, inaugurated by the Jagdeo administration, after it was quietly disclosed that it had been suspended more than a year ago.
The project to lay a fibre-optic cable from Brazil to Georgetown to vastly expand internet bandwidth came back into sharp focus two Mondays ago when Stabroek News reported that government officials had gone quiet on a project which had missed many deadlines.
At a press conference last week, Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon acknowledged that the project needed “remedial work” but made no mention that it had been suspended. That announcement was quietly made to the December 12th edition of the Guyana Times by the Project Manager Alexei Ramotar who had not been available to Stabroek News for several weeks to discuss the state of the project.
In a letter in the Sunday Stabroek yesterday, city businessman and former Head of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Clinton Urling said he was disturbed over the revelation in the Guyana Times.
“It is both disturbing and disappointing to read that the fibre-optic cable component of the E-Govern-ment Project has been suspended since November 2013 due to faulty installation that now requires remedial work (GT, December 12). Why only now are we made aware of this? And who would be held accountable for the flop?” he queried.
He said the revelation by Ramotar also came as a “huge surprise” to those who had keenly followed the progress of the project.
Urling noted that in January 2014, Ramotar gave the assurance in the Guyana Times that the project was experiencing minor challenges and that “we have pushed it back, the handing over to August 2014. However, we expect all the parts to be finished by April 2014, we are on track for that and the April to August period is where we will be doing a lot of testing, and optimisation of the network and so forth. These are very standard things that happen in telecoms”. This assurance would have been even after the project had been suspended.
Urling said the disclosure about the project “represents a severe blow to our private sector and Guyana’s global competitiveness profile. Projects and initiatives like these should ideally be left to the private sector to undertake. Digicel has for years expressed an interest in a fibre optic cable and it was only in October this year that the company was informed that its application for a submarine cable was approved.
“Government should only intervene if a gap or vacuum exists. And if the government does commit to such projects, hire professionals with the requisite competence and experience to successfully execute the job”, Urling said.
The E-Governance project and the fibre-optic cable project have been described by the government as separate projects. The E-Government Project aims to provide the necessary Information and Com-munication Technology so that government can provide better service to all Guyanese.
It encompasses the setting up of a fibre link between Moleson Creek, Corentyne; Georgetown; Parika, East Bank Essequibo and a fibre ring within Georgetown. A high speed microwave link will also be set up between Linden and Georgetown and will serve as a back up to the fibre network. This microwave network will be managed from the data centre in Georgetown which will serve as the repository for government information.
The project was to be completed in April 2014 but this was extended to August 2014 for a number of technical changes. This included switching from WiMax and EVDO networks to an LTE-Advanc-ed network. However, December has arrived and the project is still to be completed while the fibre-optic cable project remains mired in problems.
When questioned last week, Luncheon said that he could not provide an exact figure of the project’s up-to-date cost but that “it has cost a pretty penny… and this is the construction itself. I can’t be accurate, but I can be pretty certain that is exceeds over $1 billion.”
He said that the $1 billion-plus is only for the construction aspect of the project which has been ongoing since 2011.
Luncheon said that he was directly involved in ongoing negotiations with a local and a foreign firm to conclude the “rehabilitation of the existing cable that traverses the over 200 km from its entry point (from Brazil to) Lethem to its termination here at Castellani House at Georgetown.”
“It is remediable but in so saying it is obvious I am saying that it is in need of being remedied,” the Head of the Presidential Secretariat continued. He did not elaborate on which firms were in discussions on rehabilitating the fibre optic cable component of the project, which has in the past been reported as having been repeatedly damaged due to the poor laying of the cable and road erosion among other issues.
Experts in the field had argued that the lack of experience by Project Coordinator has led to many missed deadlines. One expert speaking to Stabroek News stated that running a continuous cable on the ground was bound to have severe problems from the inception however when this criticism was ventilated it was ignored by those in authority.
Damage to the cable at any one point would render it useless for a time being and having it buried, poorly at that, along the roadside left the fibre optic cable exposed to problems such as erosion.
The $3.1 billion project, which includes the laying of the fibre optic cable from Brazil, commenced in January 2011 and was supposed to be completed in 2012. However, several setbacks saw its completion delayed. In the July interview, Ramotar had said that all the needed signal towers have been erected and the fibre-optic cables which are to connect the towers had been run.
According to APNU Member of Parliament Joseph Harmon, Ramotar has gone “silent” on the status of the various project components and has yet to respond to his queries on it.
Harmon said that the various concerns he had raised including the time taken to complete the project due to the many delays and the lack of experience on Ramotar’s part had resulted in Prime Minister Samuel Hinds offering to have an independent entity evaluate the project. To date this has not been established.
“Ramotar is obligated to give us an update and he has resoundingly gone silent…by him not saying anything it really shows the … lack of experience,” Harmon said recently.
The opposition MP said that the project lacks accountability and the total amount spent is ambiguous. “The problem with these large scale projects is they lack scrutiny as to how the projects are awarded,” he said.