Governments fund free mobile data for online school during pandemic

  • Parents in the UK and US are struggling to pay for the internet connections required for even one child to take online classes, as schools close due to COVID. 
  • Many students resort to finding free public WiFi or use costly roaming 4G connections to attend class and complete school work.
  • Governments should zero-rate educational websites, or make mobile data free for the short term while students are home. 
  • Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and the author of “YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars”, and the upcoming book “TikTok Boom: China, the US and the Superpower Race for Social Media.” 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

One in 20 parents in the UK face a difficult choice this week: whether to go without some food, or to pay for their child to be able to access education. A shambolic U-turn by the UK’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson means that schools have been closed for face-to-face teaching for almost all the country’s children, and moved online.

The problem — apart from the fact that online education is difficult for young minds — is that doing so opens up the vast rift between the haves and the have-nots in 2021. The digital divide has never felt more cavernous than when it comes to education. Millions of school-age children in the UK, US, and elsewhere don’t have access to the laptops and tablet computers that would enable them to keep up to speed with the pace of online learning. Many of those that do have outmoded technology that struggles to run the suite of video conferencing software required to communicate in these troubled times.

But even if they do have the hardware — which the UK government is trying to ensure with a plan that has so far given out half a million laptops and tablets to the most needy kids and plans to ramp up to a million shortly — there’s no guarantee that they can connect that computer to a reliable internet connection. Twelve million American children don’t have fast enough internet speeds to use video conferencing services that are the standard for at-home schooling during the pandemic. As a result, heartbreaking stories of kids sitting on sweltering asphalt outside libraries and Starbucks to “borrow” their free WiFi have hit the headlines.

But no one should have to scrimp free WiFi from stores, especially in a pandemic. Governments worldwide should step in to bridge the digital divide.

Some students are using free public WiFi to do school

Those stories became too unconscionable for many to bear, with the stories shocking those who had never had to worry about anything more than the occasional blocky scene on Netflix or Hulu. Perversely, the attention given to the problem caused its own issues: being seen with a laptop slung over your knees outside a public place now signals you out as someone who can’t afford reliable internet, bringing with it its own stigma. For children and teenagers who often want to do anything but stand out, WiFi poverty is the ultimate signal of a struggling individual.

So many suffer in silence. They stay away from library parking lots and stick within their own four walls, relying on patchy, costly roaming 4G connections, hotspotted from pay-as-you-go cell phones. The issue is that a video call can burn through 200 megabytes every hour — and data isn’t cheap. Families can soon find themselves making difficult decisions: do they feed their kids, or pay for the internet to keep them educated?

If that sounds like an improbably stark choice of the kind used to make a point, but isn’t really happening in real life, think again. One in five UK households said they were struggling to pay for the price of mobile data, in information released a week before Christmas — before schools in the country went all online. For one in 20 households, the struggle became less a looming worry and more a present conundrum: 5{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}of British households admitted to cutting back their spending on food and clothes so they could afford to pay for data.

The issue has become a crisis for the UK government, which has announced various initiatives that families most in need can apply to through their local council or school. But that too comes with stigma, and some will shy away from doing so.

A better solution: make mobile data free

A better solution is to zero-rate (or remove the data costs associated with) certain websites and services that are most crucial for people’s lives. This involves whitelisting (or removing from chargeable lists) those deemed to be essential services, and phone carriers bearing the cost for all data that goes to and from them. In the UK, a public campaign in the first few weeks of the pandemic resulted in the website of the National Health Service (NHS), where people turned for vital information about the symptoms of COVID-19, and from where they booked coronavirus tests, being zero-rated. The fear was people who didn’t have the cash to buy data could die if they didn’t have the ability to access the site.

Education is more difficult, because there’s not one universal website people turn to. But zero-rating alone is also ineffective. 

A society pushed online in almost every way needs near-universal access to the internet to shop, order meals, carry out banking services and — sadly — to arrange funerals. Zero-rating works, but it triggers a game of whack-a-mole: when one problem is solved, another would arise, and there’d be more need for zero-rating other sites in a different area.

A better, though more radical solution for companies focused on profit, and governments on both sides of the Atlantic currently focused on encouraging profit, would be to make mobile data free — whether you’re looking to learn, trying to escape today’s stress by playing games, or determining whether that cough is a cold or coronavirus — after all, who are we to discriminate?

Lowering costs wouldn’t have to be a long-term solution. This crisis, though long-lasting and seemingly endless, will eventually pass. Making the internet free would allow children to continue to learn. It would ensure we don’t end up with a lost generation. And the current generation at the margins of society, struggling to keep their head above water, wouldn’t be cast adrift as they currently are.

Some mobile carriers in the UK are recognizing the responsibility on their shoulders. O2, one large carrier, is offering 40 gigabytes of free data a month to customers to support those with families struggling with homeschooling. That equates to around 200 hours a month — which may be enough for a single-child family, but not for most others. Citizens of the US — home of free enterprise — waits with bated breath to see whether their government is willing to leave a generation behind, or not.

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