Free set-top boxes for all to end digital divide

Company promises to bring technology to the masses, by delivering a high-tech box to every home in the UK

A UK company claims it will bridge the digital divide in its ambitious plan to provide every house in Britain with a free set-top box to access digital television channels and the Internet.

The company -- dubbed Freebox -- plans to make money from e-commerce and advertising, although no content deals have yet been announced. As well as supporting Internet access and digital TV, its device also allows email and video email and will play DVDs, CDs and MP3 files.

Freebox believes its freebie technology will help end the digital divide. "Freebox's ultimate aim is to make a major contribution to smashing the technological class divide in the UK," the company claims in a statement.

Consumers without credit cards or bank accounts will be able to take advantage of e-commerce through the Freebox. "We're planning to introduce Internet charge cards, similar to phone cards. People will buy them from local shops, and use them to buy goods over the Web. This eliminates fraud, and also lets people without credit cards spend online," a spokesman explains.

Freebox hopes to start distributing boxes to UK households before Christmas 2000. Forty thousand models will be available this year, and the company plans to manufacture 500,000 per month from January 2001. The company has also promised to give Freeboxes away to schools, at a ratio of one per every 250 pupils.

Freeboxes will be compatible with high-speed data networks. Until ADSL is available, the company plans to distribute shopping DVDs to its users. These will provide a virtual 3D shopping experience. Customers will be able to browse the contents of the DVD and then go online when they're ready to buy an item.

The company claims that it has a successful business model, and is currently in talks with ISPs, content providers, services and advertisers. "Freebox is close to completing deals with a number of companies, and will be announcing deals shortly," a spokesman explained. "Our policy is to make money through arrangements with these companies, not from the man in the street".

The spokesman confirms that Freebox will allow unlimited access to the Internet, and that users would not be restricted as to which sites they could visit. "We won't operate a walled garden of content like AOL," he says.

Consumers must pay a refundable £10 deposit when registering for a Freebox, with first shipments expected by December 2000. The firm will be accepting orders for the Freebox from October.

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