Government aims to close digital gap with £98 PCs

Computers priced at £98 will be provided to low-income Britons through Remploy's E-cycle scheme, and will be made available from more than 60 computer training centres in the UK

A new scheme will offer a PC and peripherals for £98 to help get low-income Britons online, according to the recycling project that will provide the hardware.

Martha Lane Fox

Martha Lane Fox, pictured here at the Race Online launch in July 2010, has announced a scheme to provide £98 PCs to low-income Britons. Photo credit: The Prime Minister's Office

The scheme, which launches this week, will provide a computer, flat-screen monitor, keyboard, mouse and telephone support in the sub-£100 package, E-cycle marketing manager John Busby said on Tuesday. The initiative is a part of the Race Online 2012 project, which aims to have the whole UK adult population online by the time of the London Olympics in 2012.

"We have an opportunity here in the UK to make sure we are achieving internet skills and usage as high as TV usage," the UK's digital champion Martha Lane Fox told the Financial Times. "We should be using our old computers and refurbishing them to close the gap in this country."

The Race Online 2012 organisation estimates that there are currently 9.2m adults in the UK without access to broadband internet services, some of whom are deterred by the cost of hardware, according to Lane Fox. In the UK, the average cost of a laptop is around £500 while the average price for a desktop is £380, according to Ranjit Atwal, research director of Gartner's client computing team.

Hardware options
The PC scheme — which is currently still in its trial phase — will provide a choice of hardware based around the Intel Pentium 4 processor. The hardware will be supplied through the E-cycle scheme, an IT recycling project run by Remploy, which specialises in finding work for disabled and disadvantaged people.

The £98 option will include a 15-inch monitor, a 2.0GHz P4 processor, 256MB RAM, a 20GB hard drive and will run Ubuntu — a variant of Linux — rather than Windows, Busby told ZDNet UK. At the top end of the scale, E-cycle is trialling the supply of a desktop with a 17-inch monitor, a 2.8GHz P4 processor, 512MB RAM and a 40GB hard drive for around £140.

Remploy says that it is still working out the details of how best to target the intended demographic, but it will initially reach its target audience via 60 online computer training centres, as well as via charities. However, Busby said that there is currently no prerequisite for purchasing the low-cost machines and no licensing restrictions that stop them from providing the computers to a wider audience.

Race Online 2012 has also negotiated a cut-price deal with mobile operator 3 to provide mobile broadband for the devices, starting from £9 per month or £18 for three months on a rolling contract. Pre-pay dongle deals will also be available in 1GB, 3GB and 12GB usage allowances, with prices for the 1GB starting from £12.

In May, the coalition government announced that it was scrapping Becta, the agency responsible for IT in education, which had a similar scheme known as the Home Access programme in place to provide funding for low-income families to purchase computing equipment.

Get the latest technology news and analysis, blogs and reviews delivered directly to your inbox with ZDNet UK's newsletters.