Ministry: Telecommunications maybe merged

OFTEL audit report concerns gov’t officials

A recent internal audit that showed
understaffing and inadequacies at the government Office of Telecommunications
has led to efforts to merge the troubled agency with another department –
possibly 911 Emergency Communications or the Cayman Islands Hazard Management
unit.

Ministry of District Administration
Chief Officer Kearney Gomez said, in his view, the Internal Audit Unit report
showed a government agency that was on the verge of growing out of control.

During an interview last week, Mr.
Gomez denied management claims that there was insufficient staff to manage the
office’s work and said that in the years following Hurricane Ivan, the Office
of Telecommunications seemed to have lost its focus.

“We never had more than four staff
since its inception,” Mr. Gomez said. “Then we had a blow up in staff, 12 staff
and the lot, for what? We’re trying to make our agencies more efficient and cut
back on our staff as much as possible.”

“I was responsible for setting the
agency up in the 1980s. So if there’s anyone who should know about it; it
should be me.”

According to auditors, the Office
of Telecommunications, or OFTEL as it is frequently referred to, plays a key
role in providing critical communications services to key agencies throughout
the Cayman Islands.

At the time of the report there
were 2,200 radio users or subscribers on the country’s computer controlled,
multi-site high-frequency communications system. Agencies using the radios are
charged a $55 per unit fee each month.  

Other telecommunications systems
include a multi-site digital microwave network, local and wide area computer networks
and routers, and radio control dispatch consoles for the 911 Emergency Centre
and the Cayman Islands Fire Service. The office also provides essential
infrastructure, technical support and maintenance for the national weather
radio FM broadcast system and the public hospital radio paging network.

The audit stated the office lacked
proper financial expertise to monitor the business end of its operations. That
included signing annual contracts with the 51 public and private agencies
serviced by the telecommunications office. At the time the report was
completed, 46 of those 51 contracts were not to be invalid. Examples of agencies
that did not have valid contractual agreements with the telecommunications
office included the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service, the fire service, the
Immigration Department and 911.

In addition, auditors said there
were certain basic questions about the communications network design, capacity
and limitations that telecommunications office managers simply could not
verify.

Those included whether the
communications system was installed as per its planned design; whether it was
built to standards that could withstand catastrophic weather conditions; and
whether there were back-up systems in place “so as not to rely on one radio
service equipment provider”.

Mr. Gomez said certain changes made
within the past year would have significantly reduced the financial management
burden on the telecommunications office. He said the agency is no longer required
to bill other government departments for radio purchases and that has led to
the elimination of interagency contractual requirements.

Keeping track of all these
interagency charges was one of the reasons OFTEL felt it had to take on extra
staff, Mr. Gomez said.

Moreover, some government agencies
in recent years had basically stopped using emergency radios in favour of cell
phones because of the cost and bureaucracy associated with the accounting
system.

“Because everybody had to pay these
exorbitant sums for the service that they were providing, people moved away
from this and went to cellular,” Mr. Gomez said. “You know what happened even
just this year with the earthquake, when everything jammed and even me – to get
a message out – had to go across the street to Radio Cayman.”

“People said it was cheaper for
us…to migrate to cellular. But in Hurricane Ivan, if we didn’t have these
(radio) systems, what would have happened to us?”

As far as the unfamiliarity with
the telecommunications system, Mr. Gomez said there were government officials
that had such knowledge. He declined to comment on why OFTEL management – at
the time of the audit – apparently did not.

In the end, Mr. Gomez said
emergency communications should be the focus of the telecommunications office;
as well as 911 and Hazard Management Cayman Islands. He believes there are
certain synergies that should all those agencies to work together – perhaps
under one roof – in the future.

“It is, first and foremost,
emergency communications. Once everybody understands that, then we’re on easy
street.”

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