By Kim Tong-hyung
Korea envisions digital school books ushering in a new chapter in education. Now, if only government authorities could find a company to make e-book readers for the schools to use.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is planning to spend 18 billion won (about $15.5 million) to establish e-book infrastructures in 110 schools in rural communities around the country, where the digital transition is to be tested first.
However, there are concerns that the project could be derailed. The consortium that the government picked to provide the e-book readers, led by LG Dacom (LG Group's fixed-line telephony unit) and American computer giant Hewlett Packard (HP), is showing signs of bailing.
More than 9,800 e-book devices are required for the project, and the government insists it won't be spending more than 1.1 million won for each unit. However, LG Dacom and HP are finding it hard to keep the price of the device below 1.3 million won.
The conflict over prices has the consortium, despite being selected as the preferred bidder, reluctant to ink a contract, and industry sources say that there is a real possibility that the deal could fall through.
"We already replaced the Intel CPUs with AMD chips, and switched the device from the HP2730 to TX2000, which in effect allowed us to slash the prices from the 1.5 to 1.3 million won. It's hard to make the e-book devices any cheaper than that," said an LG Dacom representative.
The consortium may be the ones with the leverage, as the government doesn't seem to have a backup plan.
A mid-sized local computer maker had bid for the project by presenting a "tablet" computer it was willing to provide for 900,000 won per unit, but the ministry chose to go with HP's devices instead.
Although the ministry claimed that the company's e-book reader was inferior to the HP devices, the company claims there could have been a better selection process than picking 14 teachers to test the devices for 10 minutes each.
The ministry had also requested local electronics giants Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics to develop e-book readers for the schools, but the companies declined, citing a lack of market size.
"The big companies ignored the project, saying the market isn't there, and we didn't think the e-book reader made by the smaller company was good enough," said an education ministry official.
"The LG Dacom-HP consortium was the best choice available, and we are still confident that a deal can be reached."