Access to IT

A few sharp practices have been found out in Egypt recently, where the Ministry of ICT has had to back track on a scheme to increase PC penetration in Egyptian homes.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  September 28, 2002

A few sharp practices have been found out in Egypt recently, where the Ministry of ICT has had to back track on a scheme to increase PC penetration in Egyptian homes.

The scheme is admirable and innovative in itself-the idea is to allow home users to buy cheap PCs using loans provided at competitive rates and paid back via their phone bill.

The trouble was that the MICT kept a large slice of the project in the hands of private investors, and excluded thousands of small assemblers from the project.

Thankfully, due to the efforts of the IT division of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, the project has now been amended to allow any assembler to submit their products to be considered under the scheme, but the conditions for this are still unclear, and look like they will restrict access to just the larger players.

This again leaves the smallest resellers facing a situation where customers can buy PCs on credit, but not from them.

At the same time, the Ministry of Education has announced a remarkably similar scheme to sell cheap PCs on finance to students, this time using the electricity bill to collect payment, apparently involving the same players The original project was mired with allegations of croneyism and a lack of transparency in the tendering process from the start, so whether the Ministry of Education is going to have to climb down in the same way the MCIT did remains to be seen.

The situation raises two issues. First is the difficulties for governments in the region to provide cheap PCs, to raise the level of PC literacy. As an industry, increased PC penetration can only be a good thing, and governments are to be encouraged in their efforts.

However, authorities worldwide have struggled with how to execute these schemes without favouring one vendor over another, or cutting out existing channels. These schemes are going after those people that have the least access to information on buying PCs-the home user-so any suggestion that the hardware involved is somehow 'government approved' is a big selling point for nervous first time buyers.

Opening the scheme to as many reputable systems builders as possible is the only way to be truly fair to all, but also creates an unwieldy scheme where someone has to spend a lot of time granting approval to hardware.

The matter means that those that can't afford to put the full amount up front are not excluded from PC ownership-access to tools and all that-which in my opinion is a good thing. Providing alternative methods of securing and collecting these loans, such as including the payment in the phone bill, using the phone connection as collateral are a good solution to the overriding problem of a lack of finance from banks in the region.

Ideally, in a free market, banks should be doing deals with individual PC retailers to provide credit to their customers, and let market forces sort it out. Of course, the lack of activity from any bank in the region means that there are very few options out there. If governments then become involved in financing PC deals, they have to be sure that they do not interfere with competition in the market.

Overall, the Egyptian project may yet provide a model of how a government can assist private individuals in getting more access to IT, especially the poorest end of society, but the Computer in every Home project will only succeed if it is made as fair to the whole industry as possible, and does not seem to just be lining the pockets of a few private investors.

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