“Net neutrality” is a wonky-sounding issue with potentially enormous implications for consumers—and possibly for schools.
In simple terms, it’s the idea that Internet traffic should flow in an equal and unrestricted way, without the speed of delivery changing based on the business interests of telecommunications companies.
The Federal Communications Commission is in the process of crafting rules that are expected to more clearly define neutrality—and under what circumstances Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast would be able to charge content providers more for faster or specialized access to customers. Some school officials fear that new policies will allow telecoms to bill deep-pocketed content providers for access to an Internet “fast lane” to reach Web users quickly—while leaving others, including perhaps educators, with slower delivery.
In May, the FCC put forward a rulemaking notice and an invitation for public input, which—stoked by interest groups and even a popular late-night TV comic—received a staggering response: 3.7 million public comments have rolled in so far, a record, according to the agency.
Yet the reaction to the FCC’s policy debate from major K-12 education and technology organizations has been more scattered than uniform—drawing an engaged and impassioned reaction in some quarters, and near-total silence from others.
The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—which routinely put their stamp on the biggest policy issues affecting schools—haven’t submitted public comments to the FCC on the issue.
The AFT declined to comment to Education Week on its on-the-sidelines position on neutrality.
Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the NEA, attributed the union’s silence on the issue partly to the labor organization being consumed with other political and policy matters.
Those issues include ongoing efforts to build upon recent changes to the E-rate program and seek more money for the program, to backing President Obama’s Connect-Ed technology program, to trying—it appears with limited success—to shape the 2014 mid-term elections.
“We have to address all the needs of our members and [their] students,” Kusler said, noting that with the FCC’s ongoing E-rate discussion, “there’s still a lot on the table.”
Librarians Jump In
The American Library Association, by contrast, has been heavily involved and is urging its members to write to the FCC and defend net neutrality, said Courtney Young, the organization’s president. The association has about 55,000 members, a quarter of whom work in K-12 schools.
Protecting net neutrality “goes to the heart of our mission,” Young said. Without it, she predicted, “commercial providers could have a strong incentive to prioritize the delivery of service.”
A number of relatively new and small ed-tech companies, meanwhile, have banded together to urge the FCC to stand up for net neutrality, arguing that the potential slowing of Internet content to schools and other customers would hurt their business, and quash innovation by K-12 entrepreneurs.
The State Educational Technology Directors Association, a visible player on ed-tech issues, has been active on neutrality, too, asking the FCC to make sure that Internet access remains open to students, with advising a specific policy prescription.
“SETDA calls upon the FCC to ensure that that the learning needs of children and youth are not only protected in the forthcoming rulemaking, but privileged,” the organization’s executive director, Douglas A. Levin, wrote in July. “The educational needs of the nation’s children must not be marginalized for commercial interests.”
Earlier this year, the FCC approved a series of policy changes to the E-rate program meant to improve broadband access and funding for schools. Many education groups, while describing those policies as a positive step, say the program, which supports technology in schools through charges on telecommunications providers, is still sorely underfunded, and have asked the FCC to provide more money through a new policy.
Levin warned of consequences for the K-12 community if it was complacent about protecting an open Internet.
“If something goes wrong on net neutrality, it could wipe out the progress we’re making on the E-rate,” Levin said in an interview. There’s a risk of “broadband being distributed based on who could afford to pay.”
It should be noted that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has vowed to fight to make sure schools’ access to content is not restricted. At a congressional hearing in September, Wheeler noted told lawmakers that the comments coming to the FCC from teachers and small business owners were the ones he had been “most interested in.”
“The open Internet is open. Period. End of discussion,” Wheeler told Education Week in an interview in July, pledging that the agency would not let anyone “disadvantage schools by playing around with the ability of schools to get open access to everything that’s on the Internet.”
[UPDATE: President Obama has previously called for the FCC to protect an open Internet, and on Monday he made that case again in specific and strong language in a statement posted on the White House’s website.
The president called for an explicit ban on “paid prioritization” of content that risks putting Internet content in a “slow lane.” He also said the FCC needs to reclassify consumer broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act—a step favored by many consumer groups—under which it regulates other telecom services. At the same time, Obama said, the agency should refrain from using that power for rate regulation and other duties “less relevant to broadband services.”
Obama framed his argument for an open Internet in business and educational terms.
The principle of net neutrality means that “an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations,” Obama said, “and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.”
Obama appoints the FCC’s chairman and the panel’s five members, three of whom are Democrats. No more than three members can belong to any one political party.]
Meanwhile, the International Society for Techology in Education, a 19,000-member organization, has not submitted official comments to the FCC on neutrality. The organization released a statement saying it “supports efforts to ensure that the Internet remains open as a source of content for schools,” and asked the FCC to closely examine whether any policy changes would result in “potentially higher costs and reduced digital offerings.”
ISTE officials said it was unclear how the agency’s changes would affect schools. The creation of “fast lanes” could result in schools getting hit with higher prices if content providers passed along costs to K-12 users, the organization said.
On the flip side, it was possible that schools could receive “a lot of content faster” from large providers of Web-based material, with minimal price hikes.
One Washington lobbyist on education issues, who spoke to Education Week on the condition of anonymity, attributed the middling engagement among some K-12 groups on neutrality partly to the school community’s strong focus on overhauling the E-rate, or “getting connections into the school.”
The lobbyist also said school officials probably hadn’t coalesced around net neutrality because there seemed to be so many potential policies in play from the FCC.
“There seem to be a lot of different proposals,” the lobbyist said. “It’s not clear which of these proposals are going to win out.”