Students Get Tablets, But What if They Don’t Have Broadband at Home?

School districts have purchased more than 10 million iPads so far, while a growing number are providing students with Android tablets. Either way, districts face a tough question: How effective are those devices in the hands of students whose homes lack Internet access?

For some districts, the answer is to provide broadband service, either on their own or by working with a service provider. One example is Columbia (Missouri) Public Schools, whose new high school on the outskirts of town provides iPad Minis to students. Because of its remote location, the district is considering building a tower nearby to meet county and International Fire Code requirements for emergency responder signal coverage.

Columbia is considering using that tower to provide Wi-Fi service to students in that area. "In many cases, they go home and can't afford access to the Internet," said district CFO Linda Quinley.

The district wants to partner with a broadband provider rather than becoming one. That's a smart move because extending broadband outside of school grounds is no small task. But the overarching question of whether and how to provide broadband service is one that any district should be prepared to face as part of providing tablets. Here are five factors to consider:

Free isn't free. The district or its service provider partner must have ample skilled staff to field calls when students can’t connect. "Even if they say: 'It's free. You get no technical support,' people are still going to call the school because they don't know what else to do," says Rick Rotundo, vice president of marketing at xG Technology, a wireless equipment vendor. "They have to have some procedure in place."

That procedure also has to be designed to maximize resolution rather than be a best-effort attempt. After all, by agreeing to provide broadband – directly or with a partner – a district is effectively saying it's necessary for schoolwork, which implies that students who don't have it are at a disadvantage. An understaffed help desk can't be the reason for that disadvantage.

Wi-Fi might not cut it. All tablets have Wi-Fi, so it's tempting to use that technology to deliver Internet access outside of schools. But making Wi-Fi work on a wide-area basis requires a lot of effort and expertise, which districts rarely have in house. Calling in the experts doesn't come cheap, nor does the amount of infrastructure and backhaul necessary to blanket dozens of square miles. And don’t forget that Wi-Fi doesn’t require spectrum licenses, so there’s no inherent protection against interference.

Who pays, and how much? Eschewing Wi-Fi in favor of another technology – more about that decision in a moment – means that student homes will need customer premise equipment (CPE). Each of those boxes costs hundreds of dollars, depending on the technology. Will the district pay for those? Will parents pick up all or some of that expense, such as on a sliding-scale, rental basis?

The WiMAX wild card. For decades, school districts and colleges had access to Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) spectrum. Many of them eventually leased their licenses to Clearwire and other companies that used them to offer WiMAX-based broadband service. Although those service providers are abandoning WiMAX in favor of the more widely used LTE, some will keep WiMAX in place indefinitely in markets where there are enough customers. If your market has a WiMAX provider, it’s worth exploring the technology as a way to bring broadband to home CPEs, which then use Wi-Fi to connect to tablets.

The catch is that like Wi-Fi, TVWS is unlicensed, making it difficult for a school district or its service provider partner to guarantee that connectivity will be there every time and everywhere that a student needs to do homework. TVWS also is a new technology, so it hasn’t had time to build the kind of sales volumes that drive down equipment costs. Expect to pay $100 to $500 per CPE.

The bottom line is that out-of-school connectivity is yet another example of why districts should take a long, hard look at tablets’ total cost of ownership (TCO). The devices themselves are a major portion, but they’re also just that: a portion. As Bill Gates said in his recent SXSWedu keynote, “Even [in] just two years, you’re going to spend more on the Internet connection than on the hardware.”