Saturday, February 9, 2013

Bridging The Digital Divide - The Hardware Problem

One of my sincerest desires and hopes lay in bridging the so called digital divide. The idea was put forth recently for the creation of free national wireless Internet. The telecom industry, in its near religious embrace of free market, of course balked. The idea is a great one, and I support it, but it will not help to bridge that gap.
The problem isn't necessarily one of access to the Internet. The problem is one of hardware. 
Providing free internet to those who do not have access is a pointless exercise if they do not have the requisite hardware.
And even if they do, is it capable of being useful?
For a few years, I experimented with various Linux installs on older computers. The goal was to see how useful they could be made. It saddens me to see dozens, perhaps hundreds, of capable old computers sitting idle in thrift stores and flea markets. They can drop the prices on these down to $5 or $10 USD, and still, they sit idle. Why? Because, from an OS standpoint, they are obsolete.
With a simple, lightweight Linux install, and using lightweight applications, I made these older machines useful, except where heavy Internet usage was concerned. Forget media on the Internet; sites as seemingly simple as Blogger eventually reached a point where they wouldn't load. 
You see, for most of my tests, I chose two simple milestones - Facebook and Blogger. If Facebook couldn't load in complex form (not mobile), then how well does Blogger load? I expected Facebook to fail more often, not Blogger. Yet now, I can reach Facebook in mobile mode in most browsers, especially older ones. Blogger? 
And that's just for starters.
Some sites are designed to work with one browser. Still. In this day of what should be open standards. We set up one of the household computers with Ubuntu 10.4 LTS, and it runs great. Except for going to a site that our then middle school student needed for school. 
"Site requires Internet Explorer 7 or higher."
This is very poor thinking on somebody's behalf, in my opinion.
Low cost, capable hardware is really the bigger issue. If we expect our children to have access to media rich content, and some school districts are beginning to do just that, they need more than just access. They need machines that are capable. 
The easy answer is to say that they can use computers at libraries. With all the cutbacks in funding for libraries, and the resultant cut in their hours, this sort of thinking is shortsighted. We say they can buy used computers, but even ones that can be considered moderately modern have the potential to costs a couple hundred US dollars; most poor families have bigger concerns.
What about school supplied computers or tablets? Some schools are doing this, but for the most part they are private or located in communities that are doing fairly well. Locally (Jacksonville, Florida), there is a program to supply some pre-k students with iPad tablets. It's a start, but not nearly enough.
No, of course not.
There are some low cost computers that have become available the past few years. I was quite excited about the Smartbooks when they began showing up in late 2009. These little Windows CE and Linux devices costs between $100 - $200 USD. 
Based upon my tests, the Windows CE Smartbooks had a failure rate of 33%. There are tales on the Internet of exploding batteries; in my remaining machine, the battery is down to less than fifteen minutes of life, with the WiFi turned off (with it on, less than ten). Sylvania has discontinued importing them. You can at least read about my initial experiences with it here .
There are other Netbooks and now Chromebooks, which at least have the promise of providing an inexpensive alternative. But they normally run between $240 - $300 USD. There are plenty of smartphones out there as well, but can these truly substitute for computers?
Clearly, another solution has to be found. We can build a free Internet Super Highway; we just need to make sure the on ramps are easier accessed by those whom we seek to help. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in futility.

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