December 8, 2006

Assessing the true cost of One Laptop Per Child

Author: Lisa Hoover

While Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has garnered a tremendous amount of support worldwide, it has also become a lightning rod for critics who have questioned the viability of its long-term success and impact. As the OLPC receives its first shipment of laptops and continues to formalize agreements with developing countries, the cost of individual laptops hover at about $130. Critics, however, suggest that the "true cost" may be several times that amount.

Jon Camfield, a writer for OLPC News and master's degree candidate in the International Science and Technology Program at George Washington University, says that once maintenance, training, Internet connectivity, and other factors are taken into account, the actual cost of each laptop rises to more than $970. This, he says, doesn't even take in to account the additional costs associated with theft, loss, or accidental damage. Camfield contends that such an expensive undertaking should at least be field-tested in pilot programs designed to establish the viability of the project before asking countries to invest millions, or perhaps billions, of dollars.

Maintenance and support issues

According to Camfield, one of the largest factors associated with the cost of the laptops involves training local educators on how to best use the machines in a classroom setting. "Training is critical," he says. "OLPC has a very specific vision with regards to educational pedagogies which is very child-centric. This is certainly a valid approach, but in many (if not all) cases, there are institutional constraints that will not change overnight. Some degree of teacher training and integration into educational curricula/daily classroom practices must take place for the laptops to be used. They are fantastic tools with great promise, but if the education system mandates written tests based on specific printed materials, the laptops will not find a place in the class where students and teachers are focused on getting a solid test grade which increases downstream educational and occupational opportunities. Teaching for tests in this way is not ideal, but may be a reality."

Then there is the importance of training local people on the nuances of supporting and maintaining the machines themselves. Although Negroponte has said he hopes that 95% of the maintenance will be done by the children who own the laptops, Camfield says that goal "may or may not work out in practice."

Chris Blizzard, a Red Hat developer working closely with the OLPC project, says routine maintenance of the machines will be easy, given the simplistic nature of the laptop's design. "[M]ost of the maintenance of the laptop can be done in the field and should be very easy. For example, it should be possible to replace the LEDs that run the backlight for the display in the field. Battery replacement is easy and low-cost. Common fixes should be able to be done by just about anyone with a small set of tools."

Edward Cherlin, a volunteer with the OLPC project, says he expects children will respond enthusiastically to the opportunity to learn how to do their own machine maintenance. "Any sufficiently nerdy 12-year-old can beat out an adult on learning computer software and hardware any day. We don't recognize the existence of nerds in village societies because they traditionally have nothing to be nerdy about, but they are there. So the cost is nearly nothing, as long as the manuals are free in electronic form."

Theft and resale

The concern over theft (and subsequent gray market resale) of the laptops is so prevalent among supporters and critics alike that the OLPC team has invited suggestions from the computing community at large on how to address the issue. Khaled Hassounah, OLPC's director for Middle East and Africa, says, "The theft challenge is more complex than people believe, but not necessarily more difficult to handle. There are different dimensions to the theft problem, and there is a wide variety in the reasons why people steal, the sophistication of their methods, the ways in which they sell the stolen goods, etc. Given the complexity, multiple methods will be used to prevent theft."

According to Blizzard, "The best way to prevent theft is to make the machine useless if it's stolen. So we're looking at ways to make the machine useless if it's taken out of range of a school for a certain period of time." Although making the machines available to the developed world at low prices would help minimize the laptop's resale value on the gray market, Blizzard says OLPC has opted not to at this time.

Cherlin points out that the design of the laptops themselves will decrease their resale value on the gray market. "Sellers of stolen laptops will not be able to pretend that they were legitimately acquired. Buyers have to not mind that the laptops are rather underpowered for business, with slow processors, limited memory, small screens, no hard drives, and other deficiencies. Internal expansion is not possible, by design. They have to keep the laptops hidden or not mind that other people know they are using a stolen computer."

OLPC News' Jon Camfield acknowledges that "while there's no real 'solution' to loss or theft, OLPC is on the right track for dealing with them, focusing on the economic and social aspects. The OLPC is strongly visually branded, and there's some discussion of various security settings requiring connection to the mesh network in some form or another, reducing its resale value. This won't prevent all theft, and probably some insurance-like policy will have to be put in place for replacement (which doesn't further encourage gray and black market transactions). It's a difficult topic that's being addressed well."

Internet access

Placing a laptop in the hands of a child is one thing, but providing Internet access for maximum usefulness is another. In many countries where even basic electricity is lacking, establishing Internet connectivity can quickly cause the actual cost of a laptop to skyrocket.

"This is a big question mark," says Camfield. "SES Global has made a promise to provide to the project, so perhaps this is a moot point, but I wonder how long SES will be able to donate bandwidth at such a low cost to a billion children. They have a track record in connectivity projects, so there's hope. Standard forms of Internet access in third world nations are prohibitively
expensive, averaging $56.31 for 20 hours of monthly dial-up access."

Hassounah says that OLPC is looking into low-cost alternatives for Internet access, including creating infrastructure "in a way that allows for maximum use of local skill, tools, and components and in a way that insures it can be locally maintained going forward." Depending on local resources, connectivity could take the form of WiMAX, local ad-hoc networking between schools, satellite connections, and even cellular-based connections.

According to Cherlin, wireless connectivity is the least expensive option, with other alternatives that range into the billions. "There is a fiber optic link down the west side of Africa, and another being laid down the east side. These cost a billion dollars or more each, but connect dozens of countries for some tens of millions each. Copper is highly impractical outside the cities in Africa and in some other regions. It gets stolen and sold as scrap. Point-to-point links cost less than $1,000 each for up to 50 miles. Local Wi-Fi distribution for a village costs a few hundred dollars. WiMAX will cover whole towns and the surrounding villages to tens of kilometers out, at somewhat higher prices. VSAT terminals cost $900. Satellite service in Africa is extremely expensive, but will come down whenever sufficient competition takes hold."

So, what's the "true cost"?

From theft deterrent to wireless connectivity, clearly there are several issues to look at before the true cost of the OLPC project can be determined. Camfield says the most realistic way to determine those costs is through thorough field testing. While Negroponte has already supplied school children in a rural Cambodian village with their own laptops and often refers to that effort's success as a motivating factor for the OLPC project, he has declined to provide specific results of the Cambodian field tests.

"[OLPC's] annual projected budget will be $30 billion to push these laptops out, which is more than Intel's annual income and more than the World Bank's entire lending for all of 2005," says Camfield. "And naturally, all the countries will be taking out loans to cover this purchase. It's a huge risk to take without seeing some pilot project evidence. As Negroponte pointed out, the success of the OLPC project may be hard to quantify using testing methods. With a loan, however, there is a simple measure of success -- will the OLPC laptops improve the country's economy enough to begin loan payments in time? Wouldn't a pilot project be a safer way to test this?"