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Schools initiative enables Three to provide lesson amid pandemic

Programme to provide 10,000 free sim cards enables students to obtain internet access

More than 10,000 school students around Ireland have been able to enjoy a vastly improved home-schooling experience thanks to free sim cards provided by Three Ireland. The company announced the offer of 10,000 free sim cards on February 4th and it was oversubscribed within two hours.

“At Three Ireland, we feel that no child should miss out on their education because of a lack of connectivity, and we want to help families to support their child’s learning during the pandemic,” says Ken McGrath, head of public-sector sales at Three Ireland. “The ability for students to continue to learn from home is heavily dependent on access to internet connectivity, data and devices. This programme will run until June 30th and we hope it enables students across the country to get the internet access they need to continue their education from home.”

The idea for the offer came from members of Three staff, according to McGrath. “Education is a big area for us in the public sector sales team and we were aware of the day-to-day challenges teachers and students were facing. People on the team were really passionate about helping. The rollout was achieved through collaboration across the whole business.”

Three already enjoyed strong links with the education system, he adds. "We work very closely with organisations like the education and training boards, the Joint Managerial Body for voluntary secondary schools, and the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association. We understand the challenges the schools and families are facing. I have two kids of my own who are home schooling and I know what the constraints on bandwidth can be like even when you have a very good service at home."

Seán Stack is principal St Joseph's CBS secondary school in Fairview, one of the schools which has benefited from the Three offer. "Every school was in the same boat in the first lockdown," he says. "We had very little preparation time and were thrown into it. It was a testament to how adaptive the Irish education system is that we were able to do anything. That said, it wasn't great. The digital divide was an issue, and a lot of students didn't have devices. And in a lot of cases the device they had was a phone which wasn't really suitable. And then there was the cost of data and lack of broadband connectivity."

The 2021 lockdown has been a bit different. “We were prepared for what this lockdown would look like and what teaching would look like during it.”

Hardware

The school solved the hardware issue partly by using some of its own IT budget to purchase devices and by reaching out to local business and other partners to support additional purchases.

“We are lucky to have a very active alumni association who helped out as did local business partners,” says Stack. “We were already a very technology capable school. We are also part of the P-Tech [pathways in technology] School pilot which aims to give students a career pathway in the digital economy. Fifty to 60 per cent of our students are using devices at home which belong to the school. But a car is only as good as the fuel that goes into it. We knew that data would be a challenge. One thing our partners couldn’t help with was internet connectivity. Three came up with a great solution with the sim offer. It is genius.”

Bandwidth is the issue, he continues. “A home can struggle with four or five people using the internet at the same time. We applied and got a number of sims from Three. Every first, third and sixth year got one and we were also able to provide them to some students in other years. From a practical point of view you can insert the sim card into a router at home or put it into a tablet to turn it into a hotspot. The student effectively gets their own connection and won’t suffer from poor reception of dropouts during classes.”

The effect hasn’t been limited to the schools and their students, according to McGrath. “It has been great to be able to partner with schools on this,” he says. “When we first announced the offer the reaction internally was great. It has had a very positive impact on people’s morale. It’s been very heartening to be able to help students deal with the challenge of shared connections by giving them unlimited data on the fastest and best-performing mobile network in the country.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times