Tech week in review: Intel joins cheap laptop drive

The chipmaker joins the $100 laptop foundation. Plus: Will the FCC allow open access for radio spectrum?

By Farhad Manjoo

Published July 15, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

One Intel per child. Intel announced that it would join MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child Foundation, ending years of fighting between Negroponte and Intel Chairman Craig Barrett over the best way to bring cheap computers to children in the developing world.

The battle had recently become nasty; in May, Negroponte went on "60 Minutes" to accuse Intel of dumping -- selling its own low-priced laptop to governments around the world at below cost in order to drive OLPC out of existence. Negroponte suggested that Intel was punishing his foundation because his $100 laptop runs chips made by Intel's rivals AMD. "Intel should be ashamed of itself," he told Lesley Stahl. "It's just shameless."

But the two sides have now patched up their differences, apparently to mutual benefit. Intel gets a P.R. boost, and OLPC gets technical expertise and an undisclosed though no-doubt huge injection of cash from the chipmaker. Neither side will say whether OLPC's machines will switch over to Intel chips. AMD remains a big partner in OLPC, so any such move could make things awkward. Negroponte expects production of his low-priced machines to begin later this year.

Open access for wireless? An FCC known for favoring corporations over consumers seemed to come down on the side of fairness, as Chairman Kevin Martin released a draft proposal calling for "open access" requirements in an upcoming radio-spectrum auction. The radio waves to be auctioned will be freed up as a result of TV broadcasters switching to more compact digital signals.

Large telecommunications companies -- including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner -- are salivating at the chance to control large chunks of the radio waves, but a host of Internet firms had pushed the FCC to impose a novel condition on the sale: any firm that ends up with the spectrum must allow their customers to attach any device and run any software -- whether it's a laptop, a phone, Skype, or Firefox -- on the new radio waves.

Google was the most prominent proponent of the open access rules, and Martin's draft is seen as a huge win for the search company; some observers even speculate that Google will make a bid for some portion of the spectrum, and then lease it out to create an open "4G" wireless data network.

Martin needs the votes of two FCC commissioners -- there are two other Republicans, and two Democrats -- to pass his open access rule. Expect telecom firms to lobby hard against the idea; they're used to getting their way at the FCC.

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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