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UN: Laptop Initiative Makes Slow Progress

Is a $100 laptop feasible? (official website) UNITED NATIONS, November 20, 2006 -- "One Laptop Per Child" is a UN-backed effort to provide every child worldwide with an inexpensive laptop computer.

The initiative has been in the making for several years and it initially targeted the most impoverished countries in Africa and Asia. But Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and tentatively Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have also expressed interest in the project, though they have yet to make any commitments.

Technology Gap

Russian scientists from time to time publicly express concerns that Moscow pays too little attention to assuring that Russia's high schools get computers. They say this could put Russian graduates at a disadvantage compared to their peers elsewhere in the world.

Perhaps that is why there is interest among some well-known Russian academics in the One Laptop Per Child initiative, even though it originally was intended for the poorest countries in the Third World.
"We believe [that] the total cost of this laptop including ownership
plus connectivity unlimited to the Internet, plus broadband
connectivity, to servers, and to the kids is $30 per year."

Yevgeny Velikhov, president of the Kurchatov Institute, Russia's leading nuclear research center, said earlier this year that Russia should actively participate in the project. He also urged government officials to become more aware of, and involved in, the UN-backed effort.

Officials with the international project say they have held ministerial-level discussions during the past two years about the initiative in Moscow, Minsk, and Kyiv. They also have received tentative expressions of interest from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But, the project organizers say, there have yet to be any firm commitments from these countries.

The $100 Laptop

The founder of the nonprofit project, Nicholas Negroponte, directs the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and made his fame as one of the driving forces behind the emergence of the Internet as a mass medium in the mid-1990s.

Now, he is looking for ways to connect all the world's children to the Internet by making available low-cost laptops that specifically meet students' needs.

The goal is to enlist the computer industry in producing a laptop that costs the equivalent of about $100. The computers are then to be sold to governments to be distributed by schools directly to the children themselves.

The first test-launch of the One Laptop Per Child project will be in Libya in 2008, where leader Muammar Qaddafi has agreed to purchase 1.2 million of the $100 laptops for Libya's schoolchildren.

But Negroponte says he hopes that mass production of the computers could eventually bring the price down to a third of this $100 price tag. He told a recent UN conference on poverty that he envisions a day when the costs of both the computer and necessary Internet connections will reach just $30 a year per student.

"If you think of a satellite connection costing about $300 for two-megabit channel, [the] point is that [that is] a high number," Negroponte says. "But divided by a thousand, it's not so high, it's about $0.30 per child. We believe [that] the total cost of this laptop including ownership plus connectivity unlimited to the Internet, plus broadband connectivity, to servers, and to the kids is $30 per year."

Needs Government Backing

But Negroponte said that the production of a laptop so cheap will only be possible if it is on the scale of millions of units. And he said that will only happen if there is firm government support for the project in each country.

"We have chosen to launch with countries like those [Libya and Brazil], I'm also talking to Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Turkey, and Mexico, but after we launch, then everybody," Negroponte says. "See, I can't deal with 100,000 units, somebody comes to me and says, 'I need 100,000 [laptops].' All I can say is ‘Wait, if you want a million, I'll talk to you.'"

However, getting commitments of such magnitude from many governments is not proving easy.

Among the biggest obstacles for governments are concerns about how to provide the funding from state treasuries. Even at the price of $100 per child, equipping every child in a country would require outlays of hundreds of millions of dollars:

And another obstacle is convincing critics that laptops with such a low price tag will be technically competent to meet students needs. India, one of the initial supporters of the project, backed out in July due to such financial and technical concerns.

Still, the project is making fitful progress.

Bill Gates, the founder of the international computer software provider Microsoft, has criticized the project but nevertheless his charitable foundation is providing some startup money.

At the same time, Nigeria, Libya, and Brazil have decided to go ahead.

It remains to be seen whether other countries, including the former Soviet republics, will one day do the same.

Internet In The Former Soviet Union

Internet In The Former Soviet Union


BREAKING THE NEWS: In 2000, Internews and the Center for Democracy and Technology established the Global Internet Policy Initiative (GIPI) to promote an open, democratic, and user-controlled Internet in developing countries. Throughout the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe, GIPI has worked to bring together local stakeholders and advocate policy reforms that will support development of the Internet as a tool of democratization, economic growth, and human development.
On May 3, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable discussion of these issues. Participants included PARVINA IBODOVA, chairman of the Civil Internet Policy Initiative and GIPI Coordinator; BOGDAN MANOLEA, Executive Director of the Romanian Association for Technology and Internet (APTI), an independent NGO that works to promote human rights in the digital environment and support digital civil rights in Romanian society; and experts working in the Internet policy development area from Belarus and Uzbekistan. Internet-policy advocates from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Russia, and Ukraine also took part in the discussion.


Listen to the entire 90-minute briefing (the first two minutes are low volume):
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