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Will Net Neutrality Ruling Doom Education to Second-Class Status?

The ruling this week by a federal court on the Open Internet (Net Neutrality) Order may turn out to be, as one commenter called it, "a terrible idea," or, as another observer put it, a source of "a lot of overheated rhetoric." Education, for its part, could well see major changes to how it's able to deliver learning content to students online while at the same time positioning itself to become a major alternative supplier of broadband in this country.

Net neutrality is the idea that all data on the Internet should be treated equally, no matter who's providing it, where it's coming from, what it consists of, what devices it touches, or who it's going to. A YouTube video from Khan Academy, for example, should receive the same treatment by an Internet service provider (ISP) as a movie from Netflix or a commercial from Procter & Gamble.

Verizon, one of the largest ISPs in the United States, took on the Federal Communications Commission to call into question the idea that Internet service is a utility that needs close regulation, akin to electricity or the telephone. The seeds of the case were planted 12 years ago when the FCC declared that Internet service shouldn't be subject to the same rules as those other kinds of services. As Time magazine laid it out in a recent article, "The FCC made the fateful decision to classify broadband as an 'information service' not a 'telecommunications service,' which would have allowed the agency to impose 'common carrier' regulations prohibiting discrimination by the broadband companies."

In 2010, the FCC turned around and established "Open Internet Rules," which, as Time explained, "boils down to three rules": 1) ISPs need to be transparent about how they manage network congestion; 2) they can't block traffic on wired networks, no matter what the source; and 3) they can't put competing services into an "Internet 'slow lane" to benefit their own offerings. It's those last two rules that crumbled this week in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

In a statement Verizon noted that the ruling confirms FCC's jurisdiction over broadband access and maintains the transparency requirements. But now, the company added, "The court's decision will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the Internet."

Some observers in education interpret that to mean ISPs will be allowed to throttle delivery of services depending on how much those needing to make the delivery — the content providers — pay.

"Rather than a single, open network, we face a future where different networks offer different performance for different applications," explained Michael Berman, vice president of Technology & Communication for California State University Channel Islands. "It's not hard to imagine, for example, a commercial network that has Apple as a major sponsor and makes it harder to use an Android phone or vice-versa. Or, a network where the video for courses from the University of Phoenix or Coursera run quickly, but those from edX and your local community college run at slower speed and lower resolution."

Ravi Ravishanker, chief information officer and associate dean of Wellesley College, said he's concerned about the impact of the court decision on the "emerging use" of cloud-based services by schools and how it could affect delivery of content on educational Web sites. As he wrote this week in his institutional blog, "If Amazon doesn't pay extra to Verizon, will they slow down the connection? What does that mean to our plans to move some of our operations to the cloud? Obviously, Amazon will pass the cost on to the customers, thereby increasing the cost of cloud computing. Will Wellesley be asked to pay a fee to make our Web sites load faster or even accessible? Will this result in a bidding war between small liberal arts colleges?"

Verizon stated in its press release that consumers will continue to have "competitive choices"; however, some observers contend that's a deceptive interpretation of ISPs' newfound strength. "Yes, there are choices that one can make in big cities, but in [the] vast majority of the country, you have access to just one ISP," protested Ravishanker. "Most of us have only one option for broadband access at home, and maybe two or three choices for mobile coverage in our areas," said Berman.

"This is a terrible idea on every ground," wrote Ravishanker. "Given that everything happens on the Internet now, unless those dreaming up creative ideas can pony up a lot of money to get the attention of the ISP, they are dead in the water."

However, not everybody agrees with a grim conclusion that education is destined to suffer under a "two tier" Internet. "I think the reaction to the net neutrality ruling is overwrought and distracting," said Phil Hill, co-founder of MindWires, an education technology consulting practice. What's important to remember, he said, is that the court "actually agreed" that the FCC has "legal authority over broadband."

Hill asserted that net neutrality "is an important principle for education, as we need freedom for students and institutions to access Internet services that are becoming more and more important without having broadband carriers decide on which services have priority over others." However, he pointed out, "This should allow the FCC to implement new rules that don't step on the toes of the common carrier rules. In other words, as long as the FCC doesn't screw up, it should be able to regulate and enforce net neutrality with future rules. But there will be a lot of overheated rhetoric in the meantime. I see short-term confusion for K-12 but long-term there should be little or no lasting impact."

Even Berman, who foresees a "big risk" in allowing ISPs to charge for improved access because it could "create an environment that favors deep pockets and disadvantages everyone else, including non-profit educational institution" sees an "interesting opportunity" for education.

"Higher education and its community partners that are building out excellent and open broadband networks could be the future of the 'open' network" Berman said. "Schools and libraries may see added benefit in working in consortia with colleges and universities to build flat, open, neutral networks that allow access by all comers."

While he'd prefer to see this scenario as the "default" for "all networks," Berman acknowledges that change wrought by modifications to net neutrality may result in "new partnerships and relationships in education, and that could be a good thing."

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