Two different headlines in two different papers this week could have far-reaching consequences for instructional technology in our state. That is, if they are not just bluster. On Wednesday the Spartanburg Herald reported that Jim Ritchie had introduced a bill into the Senate that woul provide laptop computers for every eighth grade student in the state. Not to be outdone, on Thursday the Greenville News reported that Dwight Loftis had introduced a resolution into the House that would provide free broadband Internet access to everyone in the state.
I find it interesting (although not surprising) that the Herald touted Ritchie’s proposal, since he’s from Spartanburg, but didn’t say anything about the Loftis proposal. The Greenville News did the same thing with Loftis, who is from Greenville. There wasn’t a word said about the laptops in the Greenville paper. However, local media competition aside, both of these proposals are interrelated. There’s really no way to have one without the other. As lofty as these goals sound, there are some serious, serious hurdles to overcome.
Senator Ritchie’s reasons for making the laptop proposal actually fall in line with the School Choice crowd. He said it "will liberate students who are stuck in weak schools" by providing greater access distance learning opportunities. Ritchie’s proposal scores over the School Choice crowd, though, by providing resources to public education. The problem is that often weak schools don’t have the infrastructure to support such an initiative, and unless additional resources are allocated beyond the cost of just the laptops, this just ain’t gonna fly.
In addition to limited resources at the school, one must consider what the student’s home access to the Internet would be in order for this proposal to work. This is where the state-wide broadband access comes into play. The resolution introduced into the House jointly by Loftis and Speaker Bobby Harrell would create a "South Carolina Wireless Technology and Communications Commission that would implement a statewide wireless broadband network." Although it would be free to anyone – schools, individuals and businesses – it would initially target rural areas of the state that don’t already have broadband.
As with the laptop initiative, there are some serious hurdles for state-wide free broadband. The biggest hurdle will be the cooperations of the providers themselves. As with many other states, South Carolina is a patchwork of telecom companies and ISPs. Most of those are not going to be happy when their market share suddenly drops. In the mid-90’s the K-12 Initiative took on a similar task by providing Internet to all schools. Quite a bit of negotiations with the telecoms had to take place, as one might imagine. At the time, the Greenville Library System had received a grant for its "Gremlin" system, which was a dial-up service meant to provide access to any card holder. As part of a non-compete agreement with the telecoms, Greenville Library had to give up it’s Gremlin service. Such negotiations would have to take place on a much, much larger scale, if Loftis’ plan is to be implemented.
The ISP’s and telecoms aren’t the only ones that would have an interest in such a deal. The RIAA has filed an appeal in the case of Capitol Records vs Foster. Capitol had initially sued Foster for illegal file sharing. It was determined that Foster was not liable because others had used her open wireless account to swap files. Foster was awarded legal fees and damages for the action, which resulted in the following…
…the RIAA has filed a "motion for reconsideration" of Judge West’s decision to force the RIAA to pay for Foster’s legal fees. In the motion, the plaintiffs emphasize a key point: They want the judge to rule that the owner of an ISP account is responsible for all activity on that account, which could have a chilling effect on public wireless access and open hotspots. (The appeal also made the point that Foster should be held liable if she was aware of the infringement occuring via her account; in the case of someone with an open Wi-Fi network, that could constitute something as simple as experiencing traffic slowdowns.)
If we have state-wide access, would we then have state-wide Acceptable Use Policies? Who would determine these policies?
Obviously, there are lots of details to be debated and hammered out before either of these resolutions can happen. Ritchie has stated that he wants each student to have their laptop beginning with the 2007-08 school year (next August.) Loftis has not proposed a timeline. Given how few details have been worked out and the quick turnaround, I’m afraid this is just grandstanding on the part of these politicians.