How Free Are Free Computers?

Non-profit organizations have been created to provide schools and libraries with free refurbished computers donated by the government and private sector. Cash strapped schools and boards of education might look at these types of programs as a way to provide needed technology to their students, but sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits. A concept borrowed from the business sector, Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), needs to be considered. It is all the costs involved with installing, operating and maintaining a network of computers.

Car ownership provides a good example of TCO. Even if the car loan has been paid for, you still need to pay for gas, insurance, ownership fees, repairs, and maintenance. Like cars, a network of computers has many costs. The costs of donated computers are much more than the initial value of the computer itself. A1997 International Data Corporation survey estimated the Total Cost of Ownership for a school with 75 computers at $2,251 US per year per computer. Examples of some of the costs are: professional development, management, Internet connectivity fees, supplies, software, support, networking, maintenance and repairs. Installation Costs If there are no lemons, and the free computers have arrived in good working order, then some of the initial costs of installing them can be avoided.

In any case, most free computers don’t come with any technical support. Schools and boards have to rely on their technical staff to get the computers up and running. Purchasing computer parts or software to upgrade a donated computer system can end up costing the same as a new system. The technical staff or contracted staff, who are upgrading the donated computers are getting paid.

One of the strategies that boards of education use to reduce the TCO of computers is to standardize the platform and operating system being used. Donated computers can move in the opposite direction and add a new platform or operating systems that requires support from technical staff. Multiple platforms and operating systems can also cause problem when trying to get donated computers to work with other computers already present, causing hardware or software conflicts. This could mean having to purchase compatible software or new hardware like printers. An example is receiving a donation of a few Macintosh computers when you have a school full of Windows computers. The cost of adjusting to the new platform is so significant that it would not justify accepting the donation.

If the computers are joining a wide area network and the existing infrastructure is insufficient, TCO includes retrofitting to accommodate the donated computers. This can consist of new network wiring, routers, bridges, upgrading electrical capacity, improved heating, cooling and ventilation systems, and increasing security. Each computer might also require a networking card or computer imaging to join the network. This means more parts and labor. A new computer could provide less complexity and easier integration into the network and require less maintenance.

Operating And Maintenance Costs

The donated computers might be joining a wide area network or used with Internet access. Prices vary depending on the speed and type of connection. Connectivity fees over the lifetime of the computer need to be factored in to the TCO. There is also the indirect costs of Educators and other staff spending time away from their positions trying to debug donated computers or supporting their colleagues. Although difficult to measure, the costs associated with downtime should be considered. The donated computers need supplies in order to function.

The cost of electricity is one factor. There are many other factors such as diskettes, CD-ROMs, ink used, paper, and other disposable supplies, that are used because the computer is available for use. The technical and staff development support necessary to maintain the donated computers over 3 to 5 years is significant. Educators need professional development on integrating the technology into the curriculum, and technical staff needs training in order to be able to support the hardware and software. All support staff are managed under the board of educations administration structure. Technical resources and staff are also allocated to fixing problems in order to keep those computers running. The technical staff supports the hardware and software over the life of the computer. This means that if a part needs to be replaced or software needs to be upgraded it increases a network of computers TCO.

In Conclusion The initial cost of the computer is only a small part of the total cost of owning a computer. Installation, operation and maintenance costs should be considered. Installation costs include upgrading the computer system, networking, hardware, and software. Connectivity fees, professional development, training, downtime, computer supplies, parts, and repairs are operating and maintenance costs. When an organization offers your school free computers think about the Total Cost of Ownership and say, “No Thank You.”

The author, Quentin D’Souza is a Teacher and Editor of References: Consortium for School Networking: A School Administrator s Guide To Planning for the Total Cost of New Technology, July 2001. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 30, 2001. International Data Corporation, “Understanding the Total Cost and Value of Integrating Technology in Schools: IDC White Paper Sponsored by Apple Computer,Inc.,1997. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 30, 2001. Crave, Jayne. “Caution! Re: Accepting Technology Donations”, Coyote Communications Services for Not-For-Profit Organizations and Public Sector Agencies, June 17, 2001. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 30, 2001.


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