Net Neutrality Vote Heavy Hit to Schools and Districts

Net Neutrality Vote Heavy Hit to Schools and Districts 

Now that the rules that govern net neutrality have been peeled away, the reins to the internet have been handed back to service providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast to manage access to websites and web-based services. In a 3-2 vote along party lines, the Federal Communications Commission rescinded regulations put in place in 2015 that treated the internet as a utility. The same vote also transferred oversight of consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission to handle in cases where broadband providers "engage in anticompetitive, unfair or deceptive acts or practices."

Proponents of the move said the "light-touch regulatory framework" backed by FCC Chairman Ajit Paid and adopted this week will restore "a favorable climate for network investment." Opponents, such as FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted against the measure, believe the decision will give broadband providers "extraordinary new power ... to block websites, throttle services and censor online content."

The big worry: Because ISPs will no longer have to treat online traffic equally, they will choose to prioritize traffic based primarily on financial considerations. In fact, stated FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who voted for the new order, in a world in which data usage online is growing exponentially, "It is hard to imagine that some prioritization of traffic will not be necessary."

Education organizations have uniformly expressed disappointment about the outcome of the vote as well as concerns that the "light-touch" regulatory approach to internet governance will end up weighing heavily on schools and districts.

"Today's vote, led by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, is disappointing and concerning to CoSN and our members," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, in a prepared statement. "Absent the net neutrality guardrails, school systems will now face a bleak reality: reduced choices, higher prices and fewer innovative tools."

Suggesting that the decision by the FCC has left communities "with more questions and worry in its wake," Krueger added that "the Internet has long been a linchpin in educational innovation, cultivating unlimited ideas for using broadband networks in new, exciting ways. Today's decision hobbles the Internet's promise — with unexpected consequences to come."

"Absolutely no one — besides massive corporations and their lobbyists — asked for this change," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, asserting that university faculty and graduate employees would be "denied access to non-commercial research" and teachers would lose out on "access to free lesson sites like Share My Lesson that help kids."

John Harrington, CEO of Funds For Learning, a company that works with districts in developing their E-rate plans, said the vote would "initially impact consumers more than schools and libraries." However, he noted, "the debate about equitable access to the internet, especially in rural schools, will continue."

In an interview with NPR earlier this week, Richard Culatta, CEO for the International Society for Technology in Education, said ISPs were bound to "prioritize paid content over freely available content," putting schools "at risk." While access to high-speed internet connections levels the playing field for schools, enabling them to access experts and quality resources, he said, "as soon as that goes away, we're back to where we were before, where students are getting shortchanged based on the zip code they live in or ... the socioeconomic status of their community because they aren't able to pay for those resources."

Culatta worried that assurances made by broadband companies will eventually ring hollow. "The catch at the end of the day is, who are those companies answering to, right? They're not answering to my kids' teacher in their school. They're answering to shareholders."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.