Wednesday, July 07, 2010

When Students Can’t Get Broadband

I’ll stipulate upfront that this will vary by region.

In my neck of the woods, broadband coverage is just common enough for people who have it to assume that anybody who wants it can get it. But that’s not the case. Some of the smaller, more isolated parts of the college’s service area still don’t have a meaningful broadband option. They can get dialup, but most of our online courses (and many of our online self-service modules) are complex enough that dialup really isn’t a satisfactory option. And ‘mobile broadband’ -- whether in the form of air cards, mifis, or smartphones -- is both spotty and well beyond the budgets of most students. (Microsoft discovered that with the failure of the “kin.”)

In many ways, my college (and most others) has moved to embrace online delivery of both courses and services. It enables a certain independence from the constraints of time, place, and facilities, and in some cases it’s clearly an efficiency gain. (I remember the unmitigated glee when I discovered in grad school that I could check on the presence or absence of a book in the university library by logging in from home. The time saved was astonishing.) It also allows students to get business done when they’re actually available, rather than just during normal business hours; for students with jobs and families, this is no small thing.

But we still can’t take the ubiquity of broadband for granted. Which means we still have to duplicate many of our services. Cost and productivity gains will remain ephemeral until we can stop duplicating.

So, a thought: why don’t mobile ISP’s offer meaningful student discounts? (I say ‘meaningful’ in the sense of both ‘substantial’ and ‘visible.’ Right now some of them offer small discounts if you know to ask, but you have to know to ask, and the discounts aren’t much.)

I can imagine a college including an optional discounted mobile ISP account in student fees, and students choosing the ISP that best covers their own area. Then, the students could access needed services, and they’d also become accustomed to the amazing convenience of having broadband where you want it, when you want it. As a mobile broadband user myself, I can attest that once you get used to it, you’re hooked. It’s remarkably handy, often in ways you wouldn’t have anticipated at first. But I love the idea that even a student in the middle of nowhere could slip a modem into the usb port of a cheapo netbook and be able to do whatever she needs to do.

Ideally, of course, we’d have a fully built-out wired system with substantial public subsidies, so mobile would be largely redundant. But we’re not there, and in some areas, it will be years before we are. In the meantime, we have entire cohorts of students whose options are markedly more limited than their peers’, and we have duplication of services at a time when budgets are inadequate and shrinking.

The business case for an ISP offering a student discount seems straightforward enough. With four major carriers nationally (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) and a bunch of smaller regional carriers, there typically isn’t much separating one company’s service from another’s. The internet is the same no matter whose service I use to get to it. But a company that offered students half off during the academic year would be able to distinguish itself from its competitors, and inertia is such that once people pick a carrier, they tend to stick with it. Build brand loyalty -- or at least inertia -- and you’ll make money over time.

Until something like this comes along, we’ll still have to duplicate most of our services, paying for the new while still supporting the old. Worse, some students simply won’t have the access to what’s becoming increasingly essential, and others will eat their lunch.

Eventually, of course, the ideal would be cheap and ubiquitous broadband, much like the cheap and ubiquitous phone service before it. But until then, this seems like a good bridge. Verizon, can you hear me now?