Leading Article: Computer scams

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The Independent Online
A laptop in every satchel, a Net link for every classroom, and a few hundred thousand cut-price PCs thrown in for good measure: Britain's politicians were falling over themselves at yesterday's Curriculum 2000 conference to describe their visions of a high-tech future for Britain's schools.

According to research released yesterday by Olivetti, one in three British households own computers - a higher proportion than in France, Germany or the US. One of the aims of the "computers in schools" movement is to make sure the other two-thirds are not excluded from the age of the Internet as well. The politicians' aims may be admirable; it is the means they propose to achieve them that are suspect.

Tony Blair wants every child to have access to a laptop computer. The Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine is considering a discount deal for 250,000 more PCs in schools. Mr Blair announced last autumn that BT would link schools to the Net for free. Mr Heseltine is rumoured to be considering an offer by Rupert Murdoch to provide schools with free satellite links to the Net as well.

They are right to encourage the private sector to provide computer facilities at a discount, or even for free. These companies will profit from their access to the consumers of the future, and their parents. But it would be a huge mistake, if the hidden cost of the "free" satellites on school roofs and cables under tennis courts is the expansion of monopoly power over the high-tech markets of the future. The other side to Mr Blair's "BT deal" was that Labour was prepared to make it easier for BT to dominate the telecommunications market. Since then he has had to tone down the anti-competitive nature of the proposals.

Mr Heseltine seems to have learnt no such lesson. Only weeks after he and Murdoch reportedly met for lunch this spring, the Government proposed an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill that will allow Murdoch's News Corporation even more power in the media market. Could this be the price of those free satellites?

Both parties are searching for high-tech policies for schools that don't squeeze the taxpayer. But by the time BT and Murdoch get their acts together, the cable television companies may already have connected the schools of the nation to the Net, without any incentive from government at all.