/ Technology

Is offering £98 PCs money well spent?

Boy on laptop in front of cityscape

We’re living in a time of cuts, cuts and more cuts. Yet the government is investing in schemes for low-cost PCs and better broadband for rural areas. Is closing the digital divide a good way to spend public money?

Digital champion Martha Lane Fox is backing a scheme to sell £98 PCs to those who’ve yet to embrace broadband. The pilot initiative forms part of Fox’s Race Online 2012 initiative.

Distributor Remploy aims to sell 8,000 refurbished computers in the next 12 months. The computers will also come with cut-price internet connections at £9 per month.

Elsewhere Ofcom has announced proposals to bring better broadband to remote areas of the UK. It wants to reduce the wholesale prices that BT can charge ISPs in areas of the country where the company is the sole provider.

Digital divide debate more relevant than ever

To some, it may seem odd that in a time when the government is scaling back essential public sector services like the NHS and hiking up student fees that it is investing in technology.

However, I’d argue that it’s money well spent.

The decade (plus) old argument about the digital divide has never been more relevant than it is today. Increasingly, we’re seeing utility companies and banks offering reductions and incentives to those who opt to ditch paper statements in favour of electronic billing.

Plus with petrol prices and the cost of public transport spiralling, along with access to fast broadband, it means individuals and businesses can cut costs by working remotely.

Technology is essential for the development of future generations, too, as knowledge of computers plays an increasing role in our children’s education.

Entertainment moving online

Similarly, the future of entertainment is online. Internet-enabled tellies are becoming increasingly popular, even though the launch of YouView has now been pushed back. Nevertheless, we’re also seeing movies delivered via fast broadband connections through rental services like LoveFilm.

In my view it’s vital that we invest in a technology infrastructure now so that the same essential services that are facing cuts now can benefit from advances in the future; telemedicine, access to local government services online, online education, secure electronic banking and probably a host of things that haven’t even been thought of yet.


The inability to use a computer for Internet enquiries and for email is already disbarring many people from many parts of our society, which has adopted IT for important functions, such as transport and interfacing with central government. We just renewed my wife’s driving licence on line, and it was brilliantly simple, and much cheaper.
The issue here is how can one overcome this? There are 3 main problems.
One is the cost of ownership, which is dealt with by this scheme.
The second is knowledge of and familiarity with how to use the system. The lack of confidence must be overcome somehow, and libraries have been in the forefront of simple courses. These are a start, but in my voew do not go far enough. The one my wife attended assumed that one wished to use the PC for writing letters, and taught simple use of MS Word. It did not address the Internet. What will now happen to such initiatives?
The third is the biggest stumbling block, for undermining confidence. It is that the operating systems and user interfaces are both complex and unreliable. If and when something goes wrong, the user who has just started out is flummoxed. Faults occur far too often. We seem to be very early in the development of computers for the home, and all software is written by experts who (mostly) cannot imagine how it is to be a beginner. It is only when the home computer is as reliable and straightforward to use as the telephone, that this problem will have been addressed. When will that be? Many will say “Never!”

Getting rural communities on-line will go some way to balancing the transport problems they have. It will reduce their transport costs – but only if high-speed reliable broadband is available. So, this scheme is to be encouraged.

It is technically possible to design a very cut-down system. It would have limited functionality, but could be optimised for a narrow range of uses. What’s needed is an organisation to be able to see a profit in it.