Entrepreneur launches £8bn computer drive to put Britain's schools on top of the world

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The Independent Online

Professor Henry Beker has a dream. It is that one day, quite soon, every schoolchild in Britain above the age of four will be equipped with his or her own personal laptop computer, complete with the ability to receive and use the internet via mobile telephony, free of charge.

To the uninitiated, it sounds like an impossible fantasy, reaching, as it does, way beyond the Government's own policy objective of a desktop computer in every classroom. What's more, Professor Beker, a mathematician and entrepreneur, plans to realise this dream through charity.

The £8bn initial cost of the exercise is equal to more than one-third of last year's charitable takings in Britain. It also dwarfs the planned increase in government spending on education for next year. Even if he raises the money to equip Britain's 7.9 million pupils with laptops, there will be the running costs of telephony, upgrades and replacements on top.

But Professor Beker, 48, chairman and founder of one of Britain's fastest-growing hi-tech companies, Baltimore Technologies, is adamant it can be done. His track record in taking this e-commerce security company from its foundation little more than 10 years ago to membership of the FTSE100 index of leading British companies would suggest he could be right.

Already, Professor Beker has the agreement of Microsoft to commit £1m to the start-up of his "E-Learning Foundation", and he is in negotiations with Michael Wills, the Education minister with special responsibility for information and communications technology, to secure the other £1m to get up and running.

"The Department for Education and Employment has some understandable reservations on how this project might address the so-called 'digital divide'," Professor Beker says. "But because it would have to be administered, policed and folded into the curriculum through the state school system, it has to have government involvement".

In particular, the department is concerned that if the endeavour is going to involve government money, it must be directed at helping the socially disadvantaged, rather than those whose parents can already afford to give their children internet access. Professor Beker says: "The Government wants to make sure that the effect is to decrease the digital divide rather than increase it, but I think we can satisfy them on these points.

"It is vitally important that every child in Britain gets access to these technologies, not just for a couple of hours aday in the classroom, but as much as they want, so at least they have the opportunity ofadvancement."

Under Professor Beker's plan, schoolchildren and students would be free to take their individual laptops home, and within certain rules and constraints, surf the web at will.

Professor Beker concedes that theft and other forms of abuse are bound to be a problem. However, he draws some comfort from early pilots of the scheme by Microsoft in the Nottingham area, which have demonstrated a high degree of social discipline in taking care of equipment and using itresponsibly.

So to the $64,000 question. Where is the money going to come from? Why, from the New Economy. Where else?

Professor Beker is by any standards a wealthy man and, through Baltimore, he has placed himself at the heart of the e-commerce revolution. But he is not even in the same league as America's top New Economy philanthropists - Bill Gates of Microsoft, John Chambers of Cisco, and others - none of whom is giving as much as £8bn to charity.

Instead, Professor Beker plans to persuade Britain's new model army of technology entrepreneurs to donate equity in sufficient quantities to give the E-Learning Foundation the billions it needs. He will be appealing to start-ups to give up a small portion of their equity - perhaps less than 0.5 per cent - with the aim of eventually turning the E-Learning Foundation into a giant new economy investment trust capable of funding its ambitions.

Professor Beker is involved with a string of technology start-ups that will set the ball rolling by example and he is confident that, with his contacts in the City, academia and technology application, he can obtain the necessary backing.

"Look at companies like Baltimore and Psion," he says. "More growth stories like that and we'll have all the money we need. Many entrepreneurs will be happy to be associated with such a thing and it will cost them little or nothing to do so."

The idea seems almost too good to be true, but then Professor Beker's own background is remarkable, one that defies normal stereotypes.

He is the son of a Polish Jew and an Egyptian Copt (an early form of Christian orthodoxy), an unusual combination even today, but in the immediate postwar period too exotic for the couple to believe they would be tolerated in many parts of Europe. Eventually they arrived in London, but the war had taken its toll and Henry's father died while his son was still young.

From an early age, Henry showed an aptitude for mathematics, which his mother encouraged, and with his Kilburn Grammar School and London University education, he seemed destined for academia.

Unusually, he chose industry and the commercial application of his science instead, quickly joining Sir Ernest Harrison's Racal Electronics, then a hot-bed of entrepreneurial endeavour and inventiveness.

Even then, however, he was never far from his academic roots, writing one of the earliest British textbooks on encryption technology - Cipher Systems. It was the application of this technology and the mathematics that lies behind it that were eventually to form the basis of Zergo, later renamed Baltimore Technologies.

To Professor Beker, the history of encryption technology is a salutary lesson for Britain in postwar economic failure.In its modern form, computerdriven encryption technology was invented and then patented by a couple of American academics after the United States military released certain classified mathematical codes for civilian study.

Baltimore still pays a royalty to the US for this "public key infrastructure" technology, which today forms the backbone of most secure e-commerce transactions over the internet. It later transpired, exactly the same technology had been discovered years earlier at GCHQ in Cheltenham, but kept under wraps for reasons of national security. "It shows you what an inventive country we have, but how poor we can be in turning it to commercial use," Professor Beker says.

And the charity? This otherwise modest and rather unassuming man suddenly becomes bolder. "Yes, I saw the digital revolution coming. To a mathematician it was obvious. But everyone must have the chance to participate. This initiative will put Britain streets ahead of anywhere else."