Lane-Fox’s Race Online Scheme Pushes £98 PCs

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The government’s Race Online 2012 programme will offer PC and Internet packages for underserved users

Martha Lane Fox, the government’s digital champion, will this week launch a scheme aimed at getting more Britons online by offering a complete computing package for under £100.

The scheme, part of Lane Fox’s Race Online 2012 campaign, is aimed at the 9.2 million British adults who lack broadband access. Race Online claims online access can save citizens money and provide better access to jobs, with 350,000 jobs per year being advertised only online.

Complete package

The £98 package includes flat-screen monitor, keyboard, mouse, warranty, telephone helpline and delivery. The computers, refurbished by Remploy, will run open source software including Linux.

Race Online has also negotiated a mobile Internet package with operator 3UK that will cost £9 per month or £18 for three months.

Lane Fox told the Financial Times that price is an important factor in getting people online. She said the scheme is aimed at bringing computers out of the price range of luxury items and making them more comparable to widely used products such as televisions or mobile phones.

“A good price point is certainly part of what helps people get online,” she said.

The scheme is launched this week in a pilot phase, with Remploy hoping to sell 8,000 PCs this year, and will later be expanded nationwide.

Race Online is selling the computers through 60 UK online centres, which also offer computer training, and may expand to charities. The scheme is aiming to use sales channels that ensure the devices reach new users and don’t undercut the existing market.

Government approach attacked

In September, an Ovum analyst took the government to task over the lack of cohesive thought behind solving the urban-rural digital divide.

“The UK favours a market-driven approach rather than a radical national programme to roll out high-speed broadband on an equivalent basis,” said Ovum senior analyst Charlie Davies. “This increases the pressure for governments, regulators, operators, local authorities and other stakeholders to work together to come up with badly-needed, new and fresh solutions.”

In both mobile and fixed broadband, it is rural areas which miss out, with poor cellular signals and, usually, poor fixed-line broadband, because of the distances from the telephone exchanges.

“Market-driven investment in both higher-speed, first generation and second generation, broadband networks follows a pattern,” Davies said. “The initial big push is in urban areas where there is more concentrated demand and the business case is more attractive. The next push is to less dense areas, for example, the suburbs or smaller towns. Finally, normally after a long wait, higher speed broadband arrives in rural areas.”

Davies pointed out that the irony of the situation is that the remote rural community probably would benefit more from faster services. While the provision is run on purely a commercial basis, with no incentive, the gap will persist.