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Gates Promotes PC Training in Colombia

Gates said Microsoft was helping set up computer learning centers in areas where demobilized paramilitary fighters are in dire need of job training.

(Cartagena, Colombia) In his first trip to this violence-wracked country, Bill Gates said Microsoft Corp. was helping set up computer learning centers in areas where demobilized paramilitary fighters are in dire need of job training.

Given the low Internet penetration in Latin America, he said, the software company's focus for getting people online in the region is to promote computer centers in libraries.

The company said it was donating $1 million over three years to set up nine training centers in some of the Colombia's most conflictive regions.

Wearing a traditional Caribbean guayabera shirt tucked into dark slacks, Gates held an outdoor news conference in this colonial port with President Alvaro Uribe after meeting with the Colombian leader, government ministers, educators and business executives.

The Microsoft chairman later spoke on the digital revolution's impact on the newspaper industry to some 600 people at a meeting of the Inter American Press Association.

The government and Microsoft also two signed agreements Monday stressing Uribe's strong commitment to Microsoft products at a time other countries in the region are promoting the non-propietary Linux operating system.

Gates, who arrived late Sunday and was to depart Monday evening after addressing a regional Microsoft leadership conference, had been approached by Uribe in New York in October about getting the job-training help.

"They wanted me to go to those locations. Unfortunately, my schedule didn't offer me the opportunity," Gates said.

The Colombia training centers, first announced in October, have yet to open. A Microsoft spokeswoman, Carolina Sanchez, could only name two cities--Valledupar and Cucuta--where she was sure centers would be created.

More than 30,000 right-wing militias fighters have demobilized under a peace pact with the government but authorities have encountered huge difficulties finding jobs for the demobilized paramilitaries. Hundreds have rejoined illegal armed groups that continue to kill, extort and intimidate.

Under one of the deals signed Monday, Microsoft will provide database software that will assist Colombia's government track demobilized fighters and internal refugees forced from their homes by the country's long-running conflict, said Sanchez.

Another deal will help put 15,000 more computers in Colombian schools.

Uribe said the nation has one computer per 40 students and wants to drop that number to 25. Fewer than 7 percent of Colombian households have broadband Internet access, higher than the Latin American average but well below the U.S. broadband penetration of just over 50 percent.

Asked at the press meeting about the hundred-dollar computer project being promoted by Nicholas Negroponte of the One Laptop per Child association, Gates said "We agree with his goal in bringing the price down."

However, he said, "The personal computer just part of it. The Internet connection, the broadband connection is far more expensive than the computer itself."

Hence the regional focus on libraries. Gates said 3,000 libraries have been connected in Mexico with Microsoft help.

Microsoft is helping Colombia develop a system where citizens can go online for information and services.

"Microsoft has decided to put a particular emphasis on Colombia to demonstrate some of our possibilities," Gates said.

A competing model is being promoted by Cuba and Venezuela, who seek to free themselves of Microsoft dependence by converting government computers to the Linux operating system, which is developed by a global community of programmers who freely share code.

Other countries--China, Brazil and Norway among them--have encouraged Linux development.

The hundred-dollar computer (actually they're to cost $150 each) is expected to begin reaching children in July or so in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan, Thailand and the Palestinian territory. The Inter-American Development Bank is trying to get the laptops to multiple Central American countries.

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