In many places across the United States, school has begun, with much of that schooling actually remote learning. We’ve found out we have a big problem: There are not enough computers for every student stuck at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an AP investigation, America is some 5 million laptops short of what we need.
Whether or not you or your child can access a computer and the internet could mean the difference between getting an education this fall, or not. The stakes have perhaps never been higher for equitable computer access in the U.S. But thanks to disruptions in the supply chain, even though schools and businesses have ordered new computers, they aren’t showing up.
California is short 1 million computers. Denver’s public schools are lacking thousands of computers, while waiting for orders to be fulfilled. Delays are threatening remote learning for school districts in Nevada, and Louisiana. All across the country, schools are scrambling, from Savannah to Austin.
Sample of results from an exclusive Associated Press report on school computer shortages
“Sales have been up 20 percent to 40 percent every single week,” Stephen Baker, a consumer tech analyst with The NPD Group, told Axios.
Refurbished computers meet critical need
We likely already have all the computers we need to meet this shortfall. While new computers are hard to find, there is another solution: collecting, refurbishing and distributing computers that no one is using.
Given that Americans bought 48 million laptops and 17 million desktops in 2019, and that globally, the combined production of laptops, desktops and tablets has been fairly steady for the last 10 years, there are more than enough devices, especially if you add in tablets.
Apple refurbisher John Bumstead believes restoring activtation locked tablets could address the shortfall.
“We have a majority of what we need,” said TechDump CEO Amanda LaGrange, citing that businesses and households often retire “outdated” computers to the back of their closets when they can easily be fixed and updated. In any case, if a PC or laptop is unredeemable, refurbishers can extract the parts they need for other repairs.
Our problem is that while the production and shipment of new computers is, under normal circumstances, streamlined, the same can’t be said for how we treat reuse and refurbishing.
According to goTRG CEO Sender Shamiss, refurbishing is critical, but the lack of trust between manufacturers and refurbishers makes it difficult to establish a line of communication. More often than not, manufacturers malign independent refurbishers as inferior even though the independent evaluators have determined that the quality of their repair is comparable to that of authorized refurbishers.
“Almost everything is refurbished by third parties,” said Shamiss. “There is no difference between an authorized refurbisher and a non-authorized refurbisher.”
Robin Ingenthron, founder of Good Point Recycling says that manufacturers create obstacles with the devices themselves to dissuade the reuse of tech products. “Technology may auto-lock (“brick”) devices sold to second-hand and third-hand consumers,” explained Ingenthron at an event about reusing products, hosted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
Reuse helps meet shortfalls
All across the country, refurbishers are stepping in to fill the gaps. In Delaware, a local non-profit called NERDit NOW is providing low-cost computers to students in partnership with local schools, and has ramped up its local operation. In Atlanta, New Life Tech Group, which normally refurbishes and donates 50 computers each year, ramped up its workflow and gave away more than 2,000. Both non-profits note that it costs about $50 to refurbish one laptop.
Necessity is the mother of invention.Two high school students started their own refurbishing program in Virginia, and as did an engineer in Florida to address the needs in their respective communities. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, a local television station is running a used computer drive to collect and refurbish devices for students.
Most of these community-refurbished computers are going directly to families, and not through the school system, explained Erez Pikar, the CEO of Toxell-CDI, one of the larger computer refurbishers. “Schools don’t have enough IT staff,” explained Pikar to U.S. PIRG, and therefore can’t support too many dissimilar devices. The best products for schools to use are refurbished business computers which tend to come in lot sizes big enough to give each student the same computer. Unfortunately, according to Pikar, businesses have been reluctant to send computers to refurbishers over the last few months.
Right to Repair reforms would lower barriers for critical computer refurbishing
Even as refurbished computers are more and more mission critical, many barriers remain to getting them into the hands of students.
Many usable computers are sitting in corporate overstock or empty offices, and perhaps even in your basement. But even when refurbishers get those computers, they can’t always get them working because manufacturers restrict access to spare parts or manuals.
LaGrange and other refurbishers describe bins of activation-locked devices in their facilities — devices that work fine, but are locked down because the original owner forgot to unlock her account when she donated or sold it.
We’d have a lot more computers available if the industry as a whole valued reuse and the secondary life of electronics.
According to LaGrange, manufacturers should use this as an opportunity to evaluate their positions regarding the right to repair and how lower barriers to repair could help address the digital divide.
“This would all be a lot easier if we had right to repair,” said LaGrange.
Alex DeBellis contributed to the article.
Senior Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Nathan leads U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign, working to pass legislation that will prevent companies from blocking consumers’ ability to fix their own electronics. Nathan lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.