Brazil Counting on a Net Gain

Paulo Rebêlo
Wired News
February 2001

The government’s desire to democratize the Internet moved into high gear this month when it announced a project for producing a computer that would cost as little as $15 a month.

So what’s in a $300 computer? Or better yet, what’s not? Enough to get on the Internet, but not much more.

Researchers from the Federal University of Minas Gerais created a prototype of what’s being called the Popular PC. It features a 500 MHz-equivalent processor, 64MB of RAM, an Ethernet network card, a 56K modem, 14-inch monitor, sound and video cards, serial and USB ports, a mouse and a keyboard.

In case you were wondering what’s missing, there is no hard drive, and no Microsoft Windows.

“Our intention was to build (a computer) with the minimum requirements, and that could be produced at a very low cost (so that) lower-income Brazilians might have access to all the cultural and educational resources from the Internet,” said Roberto Begonha, head of the university’s computer science department.

Brazil is far and away the leader among Latin American countries in terms of Internet access. The country’s 3.9 million Internet users comprise 40 percent of the online population in the region, according to a report by eMarketer, which tracks Internet statistics.

Internet connection rates in Brazil are among the cheapest in Latin America. Unlimited Internet access costs $18 a month, compared to twice that amount in Mexico.

Nevertheless, in a country of 168 million people there’s enormous room for growth.

Sérgio Campos, project coordinator of the inexpensive computer project, explains that the secret of low cost is to “dismiss the superfluous, such as hard drives, floppy and CD-ROM drives.”

According to Campos, the computer won’t be structurally different from an ordinary PC, and people will be able to upgrade it with the components they want.

The PPC won’t operate with Microsoft Windows and will use a 16MB flash memory card instead of a hard drive.

The operating system is a Linux-based package with XWindows as the user interface, KDE as the application manager, and Konqueror for browsing the Web.

Even as a prototype, the PPC is already controversial, especially in terms of the government’s financial resources.

While many believe that Brazil has more pressing social needs than providing computers for the masses, others are categoric in supporting the initiative, saying that it will decrease the digital divide in Brazil.

The PPC will democratize Internet access in Brazil, said Raphael Mandarino, a users’ representative at CG,which is the administrative committee for the Internet in Brazil.

Sílvio Meira, in his column at News & Opinion, one of Brazil’s most influential news sites, said, “Generalization of Internet access is a trivial problem but requires effort not only from governments, but also from the private sector.”

Indeed, private efforts have played a crucial role. The final version of the PPC is scheduled to be ready in less than a month, and the software should be ready in four months. Details will be available at CG’s website so that any manufacturer or company willing to produce it will have all the necessary information.

Ivan Moura Campos, coordinator of CG, considers the project “a technology triumph … developing all PPCs’ needs using Linux components.”

But that competence has yet to be tested. Researchers predict the completion of the bundled Linux software three to four months from now.

How people will work with 16MB of space — which will already be filled with the OS, browser and basic applications — remains uncertain. However, the government intends to buy the first shipment of PPCs to equip schools, libraries, health posts and communities with easy access to the Internet. According to CG’s statement, the main role of the PPC is Internet access.

People won’t be able to save files or install software, since there will be no space, but customers are encouraged to use virtual storage services. People will also have the alternative of buying inexpensive hard disks.

In a partnership with the state bank Caixa Econômica Federal, payments will be about $15 a month for 24 months.

Still, some are wary of the new Popular PCs.

“The PPC won’t have a use for the masses with a Linux OS and without the ability to save files,” said one computer science student who requested anonymity. “How about the Internet? The broadband isn’t a reality in Brazil. Phone costs are one of the most expensive in the world, and who is going to pay for it in households?

“It’s a waste of public money. Brazil has several more needs, with more than 30 million people foodless in the streets.”

But for Arthur Cavalcanti, a law student in Brazil, the PPC will help him benefit from what is currently the privilege of very few.

“Besides,” Cavalcanti said, “there’ll be a shove of potential consumers and a great increase (in) website (traffic).”