One of the main fears that school officials have about curtailing “net neutrality” is that internet service companies will have new powers to throttle or block the flow of online content that serves as academic lifeblood for many districts.
But gauging whether those worries are justified or overblown requires a lot of speculation about industry behavior, and how it would apply to schools.
As internet rules head for a decisive hearing before the Federal Communications Commission on Dec. 14, net neutrality’s strongest backers point to instances over the past 10-15 years where internet service providers were accused of slowing or derailing content coming from various sources to internet users.
In 2005, for instance, a North Carolina internet service provider was accused of blocking customers’ access to voice-over internet protocol–a form of phone service delivered via the web. The FCC stepped in with sanctions and an order to stop it.
In 2011, the FCC fined Verizon $1.25 million for blocking applications in the Android market that were reportedly used by customers to avoid certain Internet charges. (Verizon disputed the agency’s claims.)
A list of alleged net neutrality transgressions compiled by the group Free Press cites business practices by major internet providers, including Comcast, AT&T, and MetroPCS, and Windstream, as well as smaller companies.
But in most of those cases, ISPs were accused of stifling what they regarded as competition from other companies delivering online content. Or they were acting to set limits on content they said was consuming significant bandwidth. Those actions were not directed at school districts.
An order unveiled two weeks ago by the FCC’s Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, would curtail the FCC’s powers to regulate net neutrality through Title II of the Communications Act. Those regulations were established in an order passed by a Democratic majority on the commission in 2015.
‘Zero’ Risk for Schools?
The idea that ISPs would interfere with content flowing to schools in similar ways is far-fetched, said Fred Campbell, the director of Tech Knowledge, a free-market think tank, who supports Pai’s proposal.
The cases of alleged past net neutrality violations in areas outside the school market “are pretty unconvincing,” Campbell said in an interview. Campbell served an advisor to former Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.
There’s “no evidence that ISPs have any interest in blocking or throttling content” in education, Campbell said. Leaving aside the public blowback that would come in throttling content to schools, he said, internet providers would not have an economic incentive to treat K-12 districts unfairly.
“There seems to be this assumption that ISPs would block, simply for a whim,” Campbell said. “Whimsy just doesn’t frighten me…I would see the risk to schools as zero, as a result of this order.”
In some school systems, if service was throttled by one internet provider, a rival could move in, argued Campbell. Many districts, however, do not appear to have much choice: A survey by the Consortium for School Networking this year found 43 percent of K-12 district officials said their systems had only one available internet provider. The majority of those were in rural areas:
The FCC, under previous Chairman Tom Wheeler, has also pointed to the lack of choice of internet providers in the broader consumer market, too, saying that just 38 percent of Americans have more than one option for 25 Mbps/3 Mbps fixed broadband service.
Campbell says estimates about consumers’ lack of choice of ISPs can be misleading. That’s because those estimates are focusing on internet providers that offer specific, and relatively high levels of internet connectivity as viable options for customers, he said, when in some cases, lesser service would suffice.
But Chris Lewis, a vice president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge, which opposes Pai’s order, said dire scenarios envisioned by some school officials are not unrealistic.
Lewis envisions ISPs placing new pricing demands on education companies that deliver content, like videos, that require high bandwidth. If those companies agreed to pay more to ISPs, those charges could get passed on to school districts, he said.
In addition, it’s possible ISPs could create their own educational content, and charge rival content-providers more for delivery, said Lewis, who is also school board member for a school district in Alexandria, Va.
Districts need access to content without “having gatekeepers dictate what services are available online,” he said. “You pay for access to the Internet. It should not be dictated where you can go by a big ISP.”
Risk of Antagonizing Key Customers
The possibility that dismantling net neutrality protection could slow down the flow of online content to schools is a potential cause for worry, said Tracy Weeks, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. The big issue many districts face today is overcoming bottlenecks in their connectivity, with access slowed because of demands posed by online assessment, videos, and other needs–needs that are steadily increasing.
The current proposal from Pai decreases the FCC’s role in enforcing net neutrality. It relies in part on rules that ISPs be transparent about their practices, which Pai says would hold internet providers to account. The proposal also calls on another agency, the Federal Trade Commission, to crack down on ISPs that flout their promises to customers.
It’s possible that school districts could end up complaining about ISP practices, Weeks said. But if they do, the process of getting problems resolved would most likely be a slow and cumbersome.
It may not occur “without going through some pain points,” she said.
At least for smaller ISPs, there are many reasons not to throttle or block the flow of internet content to schools, said Michael Romano, the senior vice president of industry affairs and business development for NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association.
School districts are important core customers for small and rural ISPs, he noted. Internet service providers typically have close connections to the schools and students in them, added Romano, whose organization represents about 850 companies, many of which have only about 20 employees.
“It’s hard to foresee a small company throttling or blocking access for a school or library in their community,” he said, adding, “I can’t imagine the blowback that would ensue.”
In addition, ISPs typically have contractual agreements with school districts that spell out the service they will provide, Romano said. If schools believe their contracts are not being fulfilled by ISPs, presumably “that’s another tool in the toolkit” to prevent blocking or throttling.
Campbell argues that for districts, the main concern should be ensuring that they have the best web connectivity possible–not worrying about worst-case scenarios for net neutrality that he doesn’t believe will play out.
Districts’ need for fast internet is one reason Tech Knowledge supports a strong E-rate program, he said. (Some observers fear that Pai, who voted against recent FCC expanded funding for the program, will undermine the E-rate, which supports internet access for K-12 schools and libraries.
The bigger priority than net neutrality for schools should be”getting a good connection at a fair price,” Campbell said. “Subsidizing broadband to schools is good policy.”