Thailand's OTPC project will be a mess

09 Mar 2012

The world has its eyes on Thailand’s tablet PC program as a model for developing countries. Everyone is looking at how the Thai mega-project plays out in terms of usability, connectivity, cloud and training of the trainers; how it will transform education in a low-income setting.

Sadly, the program itself is almost beside the point, lost in a whirlwind of politics and power play in the fight for budget and for media control, a fight that threatens to spin out of control and delay the country’s already badly delayed 3G licence auction even further.

The one tablet per child program stemmed from an election pledge in which the Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party won (yes, it is his party, despite what it says on paper). The first phase of one tablet per child starts with 860,000 tablets for primary one students. A Chinese company, Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development won the project with a bid of $81 apiece.

But from day zero, the project was fraught with controversy.

At its simplest, it was a struggle between the Ministries of Education and ICT. The Ministry of Education wanted the project and indeed was doing most of the talking to the media, trying to wrestle control of the project from the ICT Ministry. The Permanent Secretary of the MoE went as far as writing to the MICT saying that if the MICT could not deliver on time, the MoE would do so with its own budget.

In the final inning, as the ink dried on the contract between the MICT and the Shenzhen Scope, it became apparent that the MoE was pushing ahead with its own parallel project for a higher-specification tablets for high school students.

Moving on, the parallels with the disastrous smart ID card project in 2005 are clear. That project was completed but never put to use. The ICT Ministry was to procure it, but the Ministry of Interior, which was charged with using the cards, wanted the budget for itself. Then the MICT tried to wrestle control of the national ID database from the MoI instead. When that failed, the cards were procured by the MICT but never put to use beyond a fancy paper or plastic replacement.

The MoI did not want to vindicate the project, saying the cards were sub-standard and unusable, so that next time it could be the one doing the procurement. One wonders if the same will happen once the tablets are handed over.

The same can be said of Thailand’s never used e-Passport system that also was concluded in 2005 under Thaksin Shinawatra. Seven years later, the e-Passport gates in Bangkok airport have not been used beyond a couple of trial runs.

The projects did not fail outright, rather the project was never put to use and huge amounts of money were wasted on putting a smartcard and biometric passport to do the job of a piece of paper - with no regard to breaking down the silos between agencies of re-engineering work flow.

But back to the OTPC. As negotiations unfolded, many new realities became apparent. Only a few years ago, the world was skeptical about the $100 laptop, but the $81 tablet? And one with a dual-core chip, gorilla glass, life insurance and all thrown in that that price? Well, the gorilla glass specification sort of faded away as time went on but by and large, it emerged that such a price point, at least for a WiFi-only tablet, was quite doable with many bids in the sub-$100 bracket.

Huawei was one of the first to drop out. The company is proud to point out that its strength is in design and R&D, now outsourcing its production just like any proper American or European company. But that was also their problem. Huawei ended up competing against some of its own outsourcers in bidding for the contract. The outsources, armed with simple reference designs and the open source Android OS, could deliver devices themselves without having to pay for the Huawei brand. In essence it found itself squeezed out of the market just it squeezed out the big European manufacturers in the telco space.

That the tablet was signed off at $81 was surprising for many, especially in a land with a reputation for corruption and kickbacks. How could such a deal pass through without making someone rich? There was no margin left for a kickback at that price. Did the government really succeed in being fair and transparent?

To understand the situation, one needs to take a step back and realise what a tablet is. In essence, it is a conduit for information. One million tablets means one million households bought online. One million impressionable minds to access. Or one million households freed of censorship.

Therein lies the true purpose of the project.

The converged regulator, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) has been very busy on the broadcasting side. Half the commissioners have military titles to their name and, as expected, are conservative, focusing on shutting down republican-leaning radio stations across the country for illegally broadcasting. Debates over a frequency map descended into chaos with claims of army fat-cats acting as nothing but rent-seeking on the one hand, and freedom of speech advocates calling for a free-for-all on the other.

That the pro-Thaksin radio stations are broadcasting illegally is true, but beside the point. That the military was acting as a lazy, fat-cat rent-seeker on frequencies it operated was true, but beside the point. That there is a lack of freedom of speech in broadcasting is also true but also beside the point. The point being the rise of repubilcanism, which is still taboo.

The tablet program, and the urgency and efficiency by which it has been rolled out, is a way for the executive to bypass the broadcast regulator and feed propaganda directly to one million families.

I joked with one of the bidders, asking them if the tablets would be pre-loaded with the republican version of the history of the regicide.

“That’s the idea,” came the answer.

No thought has been put to how the tablets are going to be put to use beyond a budget of 300 baht ($9.80) per tablet to digitize existing books into PDF and upload them into the tablet. The futility of, say, 500 students in a typical overcrowded country school trying to access a couple of puny Wi-Fi access point over a slow ADSL line will soon become apparent. But those are the lucky ones. 200 schools do not even have electricity yet.

Training of the teachers? Learning Management System? Transforming education? Connectivity? Power? Nobody has actually thought it through. It will be a mess. Just like the smart ID cards and e-passports that came before it.

The sad thing is, it will be a mess for all the wrong reasons and to make matters worse, it will be a mess that the eyes of the world are focused on.

That the ruling party and the regulator stand on different ends of the political spectrum is clear, but what is worrying many people is the lengths at which Shinawatra is willing to go to wrestle control back into his hands.

There are a number of lawsuits pending in the constitutional and administrative courts regarding the legality of the selected regulators. One example (of many) is whether commissioner Supinya Klangnarong should have been disqualified as she was on the committee which drafted the governing Frequency Allocation Act itself, a valid question, regardless of one’s political stance.

If they can get the selection process re-started a clause would kick in that since the Senate could not select the commissioners in the stipulated time frame, selection would instead go to the cabinet.

If that happens, the ruling party wins on two levels. First, it would have a telecom and broadcasting regulator that is hand-picked by the executive. Secondly, the delay in getting 3G licensing out the door (unless a caretaker regulator pushed one through regardless, but that would have uncertainty of its own as to whether would be legally binding or not) would make the public dislike the administrative and constitutional courts even more - courts that have a huge backlog of corruption and abuse cases against Thaksin Shinawatra in the queue awaiting his return.

Indeed, the Science Minister has gone so far as saying that the constitutional court would be responsible for floods this year if it delayed a 300-billion baht loan and many other MPs have spoken about how the two courts need to be disbanded as it would be “undemocratic” for a panel of unelected judges to remove an elected member of parliament with hundreds of thousands of votes behind him.

Then there is the move by some MPs, most notably Dr Weng Tochirakarn, to bring back the 1997 constitution, which incidentally calls for two separate regulators for telecom and broadcast, but would also clear the former PM from his conviction.

All of this threatens to derail the 3G licence auction scheduled for later this year. All of this is a mess that the telecom industry could do without.

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