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Innovation

Can netbook subsidies from wireless companies work for schools?

So Sprint is basically giving away netbooks, Verizon is making them mighty cheap (at least to acquire), AT&T offers a variety of deals on netbooks (and free access to its network of WiFi hotspots) and it seems pretty likely that other smaller wireless carriers will follow suit. The only catch, of course, is that you need to purchase a data plan and sign on for a 2-year contract.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

So Sprint is basically giving away netbooks, Verizon is making them mighty cheap (at least to acquire), AT&T offers a variety of deals on netbooks (and free access to its network of WiFi hotspots) and it seems pretty likely that other smaller wireless carriers will follow suit. The only catch, of course, is that you need to purchase a data plan and sign on for a 2-year contract.

While that can take a $3-400 netbook that you get for free and turn it into a $1500 proposition, one has to wonder if schools might not be able to leverage buying power that consumers can't and bring the price of such contracts way down. Portugal, for example, was able to create partnerships between wireless carriers and the local OEM JP Sa Couto so that parents could purchase Classmates at incredibly low prices.

Verizon has recently released its MiFi device, which, while in its infancy technology-wise, acts as a cellular WiFi hotspot for up to 5 computers. Similarly, Verizon is now selling "femtocells" to consumers, boosting indoor cell strength.

Why do I bring all of this up? Imagine a school acquiring netbooks with 3G cards for every student at minimal cost. Then imagine, as the technology matures, the use of femtocells or even a cell tower erected on school district property to ensure that all students are always online. When they went home, they would still be online, whether or not they had broadband at home (and, in fact, in many developing countries, cellular penetration is far greater than broadband penetration).

The cell tower model would pay for itself; alternatively school districts or towns could subsidize the 3G service contracts, the scale of which could make the entire deal cost-effective for both the schools and the wireless providers.

We're still a ways away from this level of wireless maturity, especially in the States, but the recent growth of subsidized netbooks for consumers is certainly food for thought.

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