Education advocates worry that schools could find themselves in the slow lanes of Internet delivery if proposed “net neutrality” rules posted by the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday are adopted as written.
Net neutrality refers to the open and free flow of content on the Web, regardless of where it originates. The new rules would leave an opening for broadband Internet providers like Verizon Communications, Comcast Corp., and Time Warner Cable, to give preferential treatment to content providers that pay for the privilege of faster delivery of their content—like streaming movies—to customers.
The FCC’s proposed rules come after a January ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that the FCC does not have the legal authority to prevent telecommunications providers from blocking the delivery of lawful online content or discriminating against certain kinds of content providers. That ruling, considered a blow against net neutrality, has been interpreted as giving commercial Internet providers significantly more power to block content or set conditions on its delivery before it reaches customers.
The public has until July 15 to comment on the rules, which the commission agreed to post at a public hearing by a vote of 3-2. The vote broke down along partisan lines, with Democratic members voting in favor and Republicans opposed. Among the many questions the public will be asked to respond to are ones about whether broadband service should be treated like a utility, and whether special agreements, like recent ones between Comcast and Netflix, and Verizon and Netflix, be permitted. In each case, Netflix worked out separate deals to pay for a direct connection to the provider’s network.
While potential changes to net neutrality agitated many of those who closely monitor Internet policy, the issue is not well-understood within K-12 circles, despite its potentially broad impact in education, Douglas A. Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
“Ultimately for educators, the access to high-capacity broadband is as important in schools today as access to electricity, plumbing, air conditioning, and heating,” he said.
If education content providers are in a situation where it’s sort of “pay-to-play” to guarantee a quality connection to schools, “education is going to lose vs. entertainment every time,” Levin said. “The only good news here is that there’s four months for the education community to get educated on this and express their views to the FCC.”
Creating a “fast lane” online is seen as a plus for large companies like Apple, Netflix, and Google, which could enter into agreements to get speedier service for the content they deliver. The FCC would rule on whether each of these arrangements between individual Internet service providers and companies providing content is “commercially reasonable,” using a series of questions to test whether such an agreement meets their standards.
Advocates of open-Internet policies have voiced alarm over the possibility of the FCC changing the rules. On Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said despite those fears, the commissioner recognizes the importance of protecting open Web access.
“As a former entrepreneur and venture capitalist, I know the importance of openness first-hand,” Wheeler said at the hearing. “As an entrepreneur, I’ve had products and services shut out of closed cable networks. As a VC, I invested in companies that wouldn’t have been able to innovate if the network weren’t open. I’ve had hands-on experience with the importance of network openness, and I will not allow the national asset of an open internet to be compromised.”
But Levin believes that the debate is being framed publicly as an issue about delivering “Game of Thrones” and other entertainment faster to homes—while it ignores what happens to children in school.
“These are pretty sweeping changes being contemplated,” Levin said. K-12 schools are “a huge stakeholder in this,” he added. “We don’t engage at our own peril.”
The Consortium for School Networking, an organization for school system technology leaders, issued a statement calling on the FCC to carefully evaluate the impact of net neutrality regulations on classrooms and other digital learning opportunities.
“Our nation must ensure that students and teachers are not left behind on the Internet because others can pay for faster broadband,” said Keith Krueger, the consortium’s CEO, in the statement. Besides that, learning innovations require “robust broadband at the lowest cost to achieve the President’s vision of ConnectED,” according to Krueger. President Obama’s ConnectED initiative proposes changes to the federal E-rate program, which supports technology services and connectivity in public schools and libraries, particularly in disadvantaged communities.
Levin also cited what he saw as a disconnect between the FCC considering making changes to net neutrality, which could negatively affect schools, as the agency is immersed in a process to improve K-12 connectivity by making changes to the federal E-rate program.
Established in 1996, the E-rate program allows schools and libraries to buy telecommunications services at discounted prices. It has been inadequate to keep up with technological advances as schools seek to upgrade to modern broadband systems. FCC officials, led by Wheeler, have pledged to modernize the program, devote more money for internal Web connections within schools, and increase funding for broadband by $2 billion over two years.
Even as the FCC works to “ensure schools have more access to broadband at better prices,” Levin said, the agency’s actions have “certainly raised a great deal of uncertainty right now for schools about how much that E-rate modernization is going to help.”
UPDATE: This post was updated at 2:25 p.m. May 16 to include comments from Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.