THE INTERIOR Ministry's New Year's resolution is to finish replacing Slovakia's analogue radio communications system with a digital one by the end of 2005. The idea, initiated in 1997, is to improve radio range nationwide and offer law enforcement and emergency first-responders greater communications quality and security.
But before Slovakia can catch up with the Czech Republic, which completed its replacement a few years ago, the ministry needs to find a new supplier of digital technology solutions. The original one terminated its contract and is hashing out its differences with the Slovak government in court.
Interior Ministry spokesperson, Boris Ažaltovič, told The Slovak Spectator that a new supplier would be chosen in February through a public tender process.
The original supplier's contract was signed in 1997 between the Vladimír Mečiar government and French company Matra Communication, represented by Matra Slovakia, which has since transformed into a joint-stock company called MCTS.
According to Štefan Sládeček, a chairman at MCTS, the original contract called for a secure, encoded radio system that would prevent conversations by police and security forces from being tapped.
Sládeček said initial preparations for the radio communications project (aka Sitno) took six months. According to the contract, the installation work was supposed to last three years.
Five years and several billion Slovak crowns later, Sitno is still incomplete.
The Interior Ministry under Mečiar calculated the cost of replacing the analogue system with the digital one at Sk2.6 billion (€64.5 million). Later on, the ministry allocated another Sk2.1 billion to finalize Sitno.
Ministry spokesperson Ažaltovič confirmed that a total of Sk4.7 billion (€122 million) had been spent on Sitno so far.
Recently, the Interior Ministry announced that an additional investment of approximately Sk500 million (€12.4 million) was needed to bring Sitno to completion. Since MCTS terminated its original contract, however, the government has to find a supplier willing to finish the job.
Ažaltovič says he does not know why MCTS terminated the contract. He says the company acted in accordance with trade laws and the ministry had to respect it.
"The supplier does not have to state the reason for terminating the contract. I don't know the reason," Ažaltovič said.
The Interior Ministry blames most of the delays on ministry budget shortfalls.
Sládeček, on the other hand, says that political shifts, bureaucratic decision-making and real estate rental agreements were the cause of the delays. Moreover, says Sládeček, the ministry could not make up its mind about which technologies to use.
Disagreements aside, Sládeček would not comment on the reason why MCTS terminated its contract. "My company is bound by a non-disclosure agreement, so I cannot say why. Only the ministry itself can tell you," he said.
Sládeček maintains that MCTS does not "run away from commitments". According to him, MCTS is prepared to finish the work under new contract conditions. Most of the €122 million spent on Sitno, he says, is tied up in equipment, which is currently being stored in warehouses, waiting for installation.
While the Interior Ministry shops around for a new supplier, it and MCTS are settling their differences in court.
The Sitno project installed by MCTS is currently limited to three Slovak districts: Bratislava, Nitra and Trnava. Police, the fire department, civil protection agencies and emergency first responders in those districts are using the system.
The rest of the country must wait for a new supplier to finish the work.
When Sitno was first bought and installed in Bratislava, Nitra and Trnava, the system was state-of-the-art. Now it requires upgrades. Ažaltovič confirmed that the government would have to procure new software after Sitno is rolled out across the country.
Upgrade costs will be part of the tender.
According Ažaltovič, the ministry has identified Sitno as a priority. Police and ambulance services need a digital solution to not only interface with their computer systems but also to improve the quality of communication, which directly impacts public health and safety.
"The original [analogue] technology is very old and extremely unreliable," said Ažaltovič.
Parliamentary deputies are showing interest in the system's completion, too, but many doubt Sitno will be completed by the end of 2005.
17. Jan 2005 at 0:00 | Magdalena MacLeod