Global Telephony / February 1996
By Larry Luxner
Venezuela has launched its own "Platinum Project" -- an ambitious fiberoptic network aimed at streamlining bureaucracy and improving ordinary citizens' access to the inner workings of government.
By mid-1996, downtown Caracas is to have six multimedia kiosks -- similar to automatic teller machines -- which will provide general information on available jobs, instructions for medical emergencies, prices of basic products and locations of drugstores, movie theaters and the like. If Proyecto Platino, as it's known in Spanish, lives up to its expectations, users will soon be able to pay certain taxes and government fees through the kiosks. They won't even need to know how to use a keyboard, since the kiosks will employ menu-driven touch screens.
The program also envisions three information servers on the World Wide Web, and eventually cable TV access and videoconferencing along the road to what the government calls its own Autopista de la Información Nacional, or national information highway.
Erasmo Filosa, information director at the government's Oficina Central de Estadistica e Informatica (OCEI), says the effort involves an $8 million investment over the next four years. The Venezuelan government is providing most of the funds, with the remainder being financed by the World Bank and other multilateral lending institutions.
"It's a small project from the investment point of view, but a very important one," Filosa explained in a phone interview from Caracas. "The fundamental objective is to develop a platform of official information through which will be interconnected all public agencies that supply information services to citizens in general. Another element of the project is its contribution to the process of modernization of the Venezuelan state, and the establishment of an infrastructure that encourages the "democratization" of information facilities so that all citizens will have the possibility of accessing different sources of information provided by the private and public sectors."
The Platinum Project -- which involves 24 full-time employees -- aims to link, among other entities, the President's office, the Venezuelan Supreme Court and the ministries of treasury, coordination and planning, education, transport and communica-tions. Under the plan, all these agencies will have access to the OCEI's 11 databases, which cover everything from the 1990 census to a national registry of contractors.
Officials say Proyecto Platino is being implemented as part of a general effort by President Rafael Caldera to decentralize Venezuela's frustrating bureaucracy, long dominated by the federal government in Caracas.
According to Filosa, a 14-kilometer network of fiberoptic cable is the "backbone" of Projecto Platino, which uses asynchronous transfer mode to connect government agencies in Caracas, a metropolis of 5 million people. In the project's second phase, at least eight state capitals in Venezuela's interior will be connected via microwave to Caracas. Filosa said ATM was chosen for the first phase because it can handle voice, data and images, and because it's the "state-of-the-art standard in telecommunications."
In a recent bidding round, Venezuela's Ingedigit S.A. beat 11 other companies -- including three American firms -- for a contract to install the fiberoptic network in key areas of downtown Caracas. In another auction, the local distributor for Digital won the right to supply computers and software. A third round of bidding, to be held in February, will seek switching equipment for the project, headquartered in Parque Central, the country's tallest skyscraper. Many large suppliers including Alcatel and Ericsson are expected to participate.
An official pamphlet about Proyecto Platino says half a dozen Venezuelan ministries will have private information networks, mass access to the Internet, videoconferencing on demand and point-to-point digital connectivity -- all by the end of this year.
Yet whether Venezuela can pull the project off remains to be seen. Although the need for such a network exists, Proyecto Platino isn't exactly a national priority given the country's dire finances. So far, not a single kiosk has been built.
And while CANTV, the Venezuelan phone monopoly partially owned by a consor-tium led by GTE Corp., has increased the number of phone lines dramatically, supply still falls far short of demand. Venezuela's cash crunch is so serious that last year, CANTV suddenly cut off telephone service to several government agencies that hadn't paid their phone bills -- the same agencies now hoping to link up through Proyecto Platino.
Not to worry, says Platino technical official José Domingo Mujica.
"We're in conversations with CANTV for a series of services," he said, adding that "we think the investment for this platform is relatively low, and that it will result in considerable savings for the state."