Net Neutrality and Schools – Why it Matters

New Administration’s FCC Stance Creates Questions for Education

By Howard Pitler

Net neutrality is back in the news. First of all, what is net neutrality? In general, it is the idea that Internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T should not be able give preferential treatment to one website over another, like slowing or speeding up access – leading to a free and open Internet.

In February 2015, the Federal Commerce Commission (FCC) passed regulations proposed by then President Obama to insure net neutrality. The policy reclassified Internet service providers as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, treating them as public utilities, like phone service. This means they are subject to more regulation than they had been in the past. Supporters of the FCC policy say it prevents Internet service providers from playing favorites.

Since the February FCC ruling, lobbyists representing almost every major telecom company called on federal courts to overturn the FCC’s net neutrality rules. In June 2016, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 vote, affirmed the FCC's adopted net neutrality rules. Now, President Trump and his recently appointed Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, are aggressively working to gut the very policies insuring net neutrality. 
Currently, ISPs provide the same pipeline (speed) for all content. If I am a Comcast Internet client, I should expect the same streaming of content regardless of the device or website. If net neutrality is no longer the law of the land, Comcast might make a deal with Netflix so that content streamed through their service would come to me at a significantly faster speed than that from Hulu or YouTube. In addition, they might throttle back the speed of those services. That would likely cause me to move my subscription from Hulu to Netflix. Google might contract with my service provider to insure that a Chromecast device delivers superior performance when compared to Apple TV, again, driving my purchasing decisions.

But how might that impact schools? The same could hold true for the vendors that provide data and content services to districts. What might happen if, say, your learning management system made a deal with your district’s ISP so that not only was it delivered with the fastest possible bandwidth, but its competitors arrived at your desktop at an intentionally throttled down speed? What might that do to both your purchasing decisions and to overall competition in the marketplace? Innovation and competition are best served by a free and level playing field. The best ideas and best user experience should drive the market. I drive the car I do because I like its features and performance, not because it is allowed to drive on the Interstate highway and a similar car can only drive on the surface roads.

There is plenty of rhetoric on both sides of this issue. Ignore the rhetoric on both sides and read the actual document. When you do, I think you are likely to come to the same conclusion as I did. It is my interest as a consumer and as an educator to support net neutrality.

Talking about net neutrality is so boring, the comedian John Oliver once quipped, that he would “rather listen to a pair of Dockers tell me about the weird dream it had” than delve into the topic (Atlantic, 2016). Read up on the issue and make your own decision – then contact your representatives and voice your opinion.

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