Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rural Broadband and Education - Part 4

So... how does a lack of affordable broadband access in rural areas affect a typical family? Let me give you an example (based on real people and experiences)...

This "rural" family lives only a few miles outside of a community of over 3,000 people. The family is composed of two tech-savvy parents and two high school students with four smartphones, a tablet device, and two laptop computers. Statistically, a fairly average situation. Available options and approximate costs (real rates and NOT special introductory pricing) for this family to consider include:
  • Cellular data access available from two carriers, one offering 4G technology at about 8mbps download speed. Pricing is based on data usage (data caps) with an average of $10 per GB/mo with a $15 per GB overage charge. Additional monthly costs are incurred for each connected device and/or a shared hotspot device.
  • Fixed wireless service offering speeds up to 5mbps down. Costs include equipment (about $300), setup (about $150), router (about $75) and a monthly charge of up to $100 for 5mbps speed (slower options are available at a lower monthly rate). 
  • Satellite service offering speeds up to 12mbps down. Costs include setup fee (about $150), equipment rental (about $10 per month) a two-year service agreement and a monthly charge of $50 (with a 10GB data cap) to $130 (with a 25GB data cap).
  • DSL service from the local telephone company offering a speed of up to 1.5mbps (however, in their location it is more likely to be about 768kbps) with a monthly charge of $35 month with equipment rental and a landline (more if no phone line is included)
  • Dialup service is available, but doesn't even come close to the lowest definition of broadband.
Given those options, what would your choice be and what would the conversations in your household sound like? How would you feel knowing that if you lived in town 3 miles away, you would have access to 30mbps speeds with no data cap for less than $50/mo or 7mbps with no data cap for less than $40/mo?

This family does not live "in the middle of nowhere." With the options they have, they cannot reliably stream any kind of video, be it for entertainment or educational purposes, without the risk of high cost for higher data consumption or overages. They are forced to carefully monitor their Internet usage and plan around time at work and school to update apps on mobile devices, run updates on computers, and do other bandwidth intensive activities. Most options don't provide reliable use of communications technologies such as Skype or Google+ due to high latency or slow speed. All of this forces the discussion to be about what can't be done rather than focusing on what can (or needs to) be done.

Why does this matter? We make choices when we decide to live where we do, right? Consider the increasing use of laptop computers and mobile devices in schools. How useful is your computer, tablet or smartphone when it isn't connected to a high speed, Wi-Fi network? What goes through your mind when you are away from home and staying in a hotel with poor wireless access? Students access class work online through web portals and learning management systems. Homework involves accessing information on these sites and communicating with teachers and classmates online. Interactive electronic textbooks and other online learning resources are fast becoming the norm in education. Is it fair to put students without this access at an immediate disadvantage, forcing the students and teachers to figure out accommodations? Would it be fair to all students NOT to use these technologies if they make education better?

Well, this only affects a small population, right? Overall, a majority of people in this nation have access to high-speed broadband, but that doesn't mean it is affordable. Costs can vary wildly, which adds to the divide we are creating. Providers lure customers in with artificially low (loss-leading) introductory pricing and then costs rise dramatically after a year or two. Additionally, consider that nearly 75% of the population in Kanabec County (Minnesota) lives outside of the counties communities and, therefore, has very similar options to those above. There are many other parts of this country that are similar.

Broadband access is beginning to define the haves and have-nots. It is the new digital divide. We will not stop the movement of voice, video and print resources online. Soon, land-line phones, DVDs (and Blu-ray), CDs, books, magazines and newspapers will be a thing of the past just like video tapes, records, and encyclopedias. If we don't become concerned about how to make affordable high-speed access ubiquitous, we will put a whole subset of our nation's population further behind.

I'll be taking a break from writing about this topic (but keep reading for other ramblings!) until after the "Boarder to Boarder Broadband: A Call to Action" conference coming up February 4-5, 2014 in St. Paul, MN. I'm hopeful that there will be concrete action items that come out of the conference that I can write about. If you are interested in attending, find more information at:  https://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1360663 

1 comment:

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