The Government Needs to Address the Homework Gap

I’ve been at a bit of a loss over the last few days on what to write about, because suddenly newspapers, blogs, and social media are full of stories of how impossible it is for some students to work at home during the Covid-19 shutdowns. I’ve been writing this topic for years and there doesn’t seem to be a lot I can add right now – because the endless testimonials from students and families struggling with the issue speak louder than anything I can say.

There have been some tiny reactions of the federal government to help solve the issue. For example, the FCC removed the E-Rate exemption that said that government-powered broadband couldn’t be used for the general public. This allowed schools and libraries to aim their broadband outside for the general public and for students trying to keep up with homework. This was always a stupid restriction and I hope whatever DC bureaucrat originally dreamed this up is forced to use satellite broadband for the next year.

I’ve also seen notices from small ISPs that are distributing WiFi hotspots to students that need them. That is a great idea and I totally support. What I haven’t seen is anybody talking about who is going to pay the cellular data bills on those hotspots when they come due. Verizon has halped a little by temporarily adding 15 GB of usage to its data plans, but it doesn’t take long to rack up a big cellular data bill working on a hotspot.

These fixes are temporary bandaids. I’m sure any students benefiting by these recent changes are grateful. But it’s still second-class broadband that makes families park in cars while kids do homework. And as much as cellular hotspots are a great solution that brings broadband to the home – it’s also a curse if this brings monthly broadband bills of hundreds of dollars per month just to do homework.

I’m sure that most school systems will somehow slog through the rest of this school year. However, I’ve talked to several rural school administrators in the last week who worry that half of the children working at home are learning little or nothing while at home. I’ve seen school systems already asking if they should push all students to the next grade this year, whether they are ready or not.

The big challenge is going to come if this crisis carries forward into the next school year starting this fall. I doubt that there are many school systems with rural students that are ready to face this for a whole school year. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does then our lack of broadband for students becomes a national shame.

I don’t have many suggested quick solutions that will help the homework gap by the fall. It’s hard to even predict how much fiber construction will be done this summer due to social distancing – likely less than was planned.

One might hope that communities will install many more outdoor-facing hotspots. It would be nice to see these at every government building and at socially-minded businesses everywhere. This is a fix that is within the reach of every community. Any business that has broadband ought to consider sharing it during the times of the day or night when the business isn’t using it. Let’s turn all parking lots for towns of all sizes into WiFi zones.

It would also be nice if the FCC could somehow turn up the pressure on the wireless carriers to provide fixed cellular broadband. This is the technology used by AT&T that beams data using cellular frequencies from cell sites to small dishes at homes. This provides a better indoor signal than regular cellular service, and the cellular companies price this more like a broadband service than cellular service. AT&T has halfheartedly rolled out the product as a way to implement their CAF II obligations – but the word from rural areas is that it’s not marketed and nearly impossible for customers to buy. T-Mobile promised to roll this product out in every rural market as part of the agreement to merge with Sprint and the government needs to hold their feet to the fire to make this happen quickly this year.

Unfortunately, the FCC sabotaged their ability to push for better broadband solutions when they killed Title II authority and stopped regulating broadband. The solution we really need this year is for Congress to resolve the Title II issue once and for all and to make the FCC responsible for finding broadband solutions. Right now everything the FCC says on the topic is rhetoric because they have no power to compel ISPs to do anything. This is no time for politics and rhetoric, but a time for action.

The Death of WiFI Hotspots?

I’ve been thinking about the new unlimited data plans and wondering what impact they will have on public WiFi. As I wrote in a recent blog, none of the plans from the major cellular carriers are truly unlimited. But they have enough data available that somebody who isn’t trying to use one of these plans for a home landline connection will now have a lot more data available than ever before.

The plans from the big four carriers have soft monthly download caps of 22 Gigabytes or higher, at which point they throttle to slower speeds. But 22 to 30 GB is a huge cap for anybody that’s been living with caps under 5 GB or sharing family plans at 10 GB. And to go along with these bigger caps, the cellular companies are also now offering zero-rated video that customers can watch without touching the data caps. That combination is going to let cellphone users use a mountain of data during a month.

So I wonder how many people who buy these plans will bother to log onto WiFi in coffee shops, airports and hotels any longer? I know I probably will not. For the last few years I’ve seen articles almost weekly warning of the dangers of public WiFi and I’ve become wary of using WiFi in places like Starbucks. And WiFi in other public places has largely grown to be unusable. WiFi can be okay in business hotels in the early afternoon or at 3:00 in the morning, but is largely worthless in the prime time evening hours. And free airport WiFi in the bigger airports is generally already too slow to use.

If you think forward a few years you have to wonder how long it’s going to take before public WiFi wanes as a phenomenon? Huge numbers of restaurants, stores, doctor offices, etc. spend money today on broadband and on WiFi routers for their customers and you have to wonder why they would continue to do that if nobody is asking for it. And that’s going to mean a big decrease in sales of industrial grade WiFi routers and landline broadband connections. Many of these places already buy a second data connection for the public and those connections will probably be canceled in droves.

I wonder how much sense it makes for Comcast and others to keep pouring money into outdoor hotspots if people stop using them? You only have to go back a few years to remember when the concept of building the biggest outdoor hotspot network was the goal for some of the largest cable companies. Already today my wife has to turn off her WiFi when running in the neighborhood since her phone constantly drops her music stream through attempts to change to each Comcast WiFi connection she runs past. How many people with these unlimited plans will even bother to ever turn on their WiFi?

I also wonder if the cellular networks are really ready for this shift. There is a huge amount of data shifted today from cellphones to hotspots. As a business traveler I’m already thinking about how hard it might be soon to get a cellular data connection during the business hours if nobody is using the hotel WiFi. I know that 5G is going to fix this issue by offering many more connections per cell site, but we aren’t going to see widespread 5G cell sites for at least five years and probably a little longer.

I’ve always found it interesting how quickly changes seem to hit and sweep the cellular industry. There was virtually no talk a year ago about unlimited data plans. In fact, at that time both AT&T and Verizon were punishing those with legacy unlimited plans to try to drive them to some other plan. But the industry has finally plateaued on customer growth and cellular service is quickly becoming a commodity. I think a lot of us saw that coming, but I never suspected that the way it would manifest would be with competition of unlimited calling and the possible death of public WiFi. I don’t know if this industry will ever stop surprising us at times.

I guess a day could come soon when kids will have no memory of public hotspots. I can remember fondly when traveling to places like Puerto Rico or the Caribbean that the first thing you did on landing was find the locations of the Internet cafes. I remember back when our company decided to move out of our offices that one of my partners practically lived in a Starbucks for the next year. It was an interesting phase of our industry, but one whose days are probably now numbered.