Being Mobile | Viewpoint

The $10 Data Plan: 2 Game-Changing but Simple Proposals

The FCC needs to act now to support K-12 and solve the "connectivity access problem." Here's where to start.

The $100 Computer Is Here!
By the end of 2013, the $100 laptop Negroponte called for in 2005 will be widely available; in fact, if you look carefully even now, you can find 7-inch Android tablets for essentially $100. At $100 the cost of a general-purpose computing device is less than the cost of a TI-94 graphing calculator that is on the August, school supply shopping list of thousands upon thousands of schools. Buy the general-purpose computer and then buy the app that simulates a TI-94. The “device access problem” is now solved; buying a computer is like buying a pair of tennis shoes. No big deal.

(It seems so… so… anti-climactic; schools have lived with – nay, suffered with – the “device access problem” for 50 years! The thought of going 1-to-1 for schools was, in fact, unthinkable until relatively recently. That said, there remain schools for which the $100 computer is still out of reach; helping those schools is indeed the job of government or of philanthropy. And, while we still need to lobby for those schools it’s time to push on…)

Now that the “device access problem” is solved, we need to put our full attention and energy on solving the “connectivity access problem.” Each student’s computer must be connected to the internet wirelessly. While there are a tremendous number of things students can do with a computer in the palm of their hands that is not connected to the internet, the true power of those personal computers is unleashed when they are connected to the people, events, organizations, places, data, and information that is out there on the World Wide Web.

The $10/month Connectivity Plan Is Needed Now
In order to connect each and every child to the Internet, the cost of that connection must be dramatically reduced. The cost must be no more than $10 per month per child for unlimited access. Today, in the U.S., that price point sounds ridiculous. But remember, initially Negroponte’s $100 computer sounded ridiculous too.

But, if we wait for industry to bring the cost of connectivity down--like we waited for industry to bring the cost of devices down--well, we can’t wait that long! Our children’s education can’t wait that long, and shouldn’t wait that long! We are so close to bringing about the biggest change in K-12 education in 200 years! Imagine: an Internet-connected, truly mobile computing device in the palm of each and every one of the 55 million school children in the U.S. That will unleash educational innovation of gigundus proportions!

So, making a $10/month, unlimited, internet connection for America’s school children happen now will require the help of the FCC Here are two actions that the FCC can do now that are, to the best of our understanding, within its existing authority.

Action #1: Make OFF-campus connectivity covered by E-Rate. On our telephone bills each month, we all pay a tax to the federal government that is used to help pay the cost of connecting schools to the internet. The E-Rate Program has helped tens of thousands of schools provide Internet connectivity to their students – our children. When the program was started in 1996, connectivity to the Internet was primarily provided by wired connections and it made sense to pay use E-Rate monies to pay for a wired connection to the school.

It’s 2013, and the Universal Service Administrative Company, the organization charged with administering the E-Rate program, allows schools to use E-Rate monies to pay for wireless connectivity, e.g., cellular services. But the FCC has still not changed the rule that internet connectivity paid for by E-Rate must be used only on a school’s campus. So, for example, the 440 students in a St. Marys (OH) elementary school, who each have a smartphone and use cellular connectivity while in school can’t take their smartphones homes and use that same cellular connectivity from home (or from a local stream where the students are collecting water quality data).

Interestingly, however, the FCC ran a pilot program in 2011, where the F.C .C. suspended the “must be on campus” rule, and allowed 10 schools to use wireless connectivity on campus and off. But, there literally has been no word about the findings from that pilot program. Please FCC, scale that pilot program to all schools that are using E-Rate to pay for wireless connectivity: let students use their wireless connectivity on campus and off campus.

Action #2: Create the “Connect to Learn” Initiative and compel the wireless Internet providers to give education a $10/month, unlimited, data connection rate. There is a precedent for Action #2: The FCC just created the “Connect to Compete” initiative that compels cable companies to provide access to the Internet to poor families for $9.95/month! (A “poor” family is defined as a family having one or more children in the Free and Reduced School Lunch program.) Please FCC, use your existing powers-- the same ones you just used to bring poor families into the 21st century--to bring America’s school children into the 21st century. A $10/month, unlimited cellular data plan would be a total game-changer for K-12 education.

Next Steps
Access to computing and access to the Internet for every K-12 learner are not only engines of economic growth for America they are fundamental rights, up there with the right to vote. Is that an exaggeration? Not in the Age of Mobilism; not when being off the net means not being able to participate in today and tomorrow’s global marketplace. You wouldn’t want that for your children--so we shouldn’t have that for any of America’s children. Industry, after eight years, has made access to computing a reality; the FCC can make access to the Internet a reality now.

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