The government's deal with broadband providers to help students study and work from home does not cover popular Zoom or Microsoft websites.
A number of third-level institutions and schools have alerted their representatives that a majority of the sites that students are actually using for their online studies, such as teleconference platform Zoom, Youtube and Microsoft, are not included in the government's plan that educational sites would be "zero rated" by broadband providers.
Zero-rating is the practice of providing Internet access without financial cost under certain conditions, such as by permitting access to only certain websites or by subsidizing the service.
On April 15, the government announced that: "Access to healthcare and educational resource websites identified by the Government will be zero-rated for all customers where technically feasible."
"I can confirm that all major telecommunication operators have made commitments to measures which will assist people to stay in touch and work from home during Covid-19," Minister for Communications Richard Bruton repeated in the Dáil on Thursday.
A parliamentary question from Sinn Fein's David Cullinane, now reveals that popular sites used by educational institutions such as Zoom, Youtube and Microsoft linked websites, are not covered by the measures, meaning students will have to use their own internet allowances to access the sites, and could incur extra costs.
"Telecommunications operators are currently finalising their work in zero-rating of educational resource platforms and information in this regard will be published shortly," Mr Bruton replied.
"I understand that industry does not propose zero rating specific platforms such as YouTube, Microsoft or Zoom as it is not technically possible to establish when they are being used specifically for educational purposes."
Mr Cullinane says without such sites, there is no real benefit to students.
“It now appears these companies are refusing to zero rate anything of real benefit to students," he said.
"I have been contacted by staff in a number of third-level institutions who have told me that the providers will not zero rate any commercial websites including Microsoft, YouTube or Zoom, but these are sites that thousands of university students are using for their online studies.
This means that students have to pay for online classes done via Zoom, for example.
“I understand that HEAnet offered to help broadband providers identify individual students on their networks so that they could zero rate users rather than websites but this offer was rejected
“At this stage, by the time there is any agreement on this exams will be over and the only person to benefit will be Richard Bruton.”
Fianna Fáil TD Brendan Smith also raised the impact of the "digital divide" with Minister Bruton, where low broadband access could result in excess costs for students who have to use mobile data providers, or go without access entirely.
"Poor broadband coverage in so many parts of Cavan/Monaghan is causing serious problems for many students," he said.
"This causes particular difficulties for students preparing for examinations both at second and third level.
"Each day I receive representations from families where there is utter frustration and concern about the impact poor broadband is having on students’ work."
Minister Bruton said the issue was "a matter for service providers", with whom his officials have been "engaging intensively with".