In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in June, a Penn State information technology administrator suggested that the federal government should back legislation that would retain network non-discrimination rules–known as “net neutrality.”

Jeff Kuhns, senior director of Information Technology Services at Penn State, testified at the invitation of committee chair Sen. Arlen Specter on June 14 at the U.S. Capitol. He urged senators to support a bill that would prevent internet service providers from blocking or altering certain web content.

Here’s an excerpt of his written testimony:

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee:

… I would like to focus my remarks on the importance of keeping the internet open to all–the issue of “net neutrality.”

Universities are extremely large producers and users of internet content. Penn State, for instance, depends upon the internet to provide distance learning educational services–allowing us to bring our enormous educational resources to the benefit of off-campus students throughout Pennsylvania, and even throughout the world. Furthermore, universities use the internet to provide vital telemedicine services that provide essential medical monitoring and treatment via low-cost broadband connections. We are constantly developing new internet-based applications and services that we hope to share with the American public.

All of these activities, however, depend upon the availability of an open internet. The government’s decision to eliminate this policy of openness last year throws all of our valuable services and research into doubt. Our distance learning, our telemedicine applications, and our research activities could be wiped out if the owners of the broadband networks are allowed to close down the internet, or give preferential treatment to their own services. We urge Congress to restore the net neutrality policy that governed the internet since its inception. The future of American education, innovation, and competitiveness is at stake.

Penn State is a multi-location university with 24 campuses located throughout the Commonwealth. As a land-grant university, we also have county extension offices in each of the state’s 67 counties. We have over 80,000 students, with approximately one-half at the University Park campus in State College.

Broadband internet services are fundamentally important to our university in many ways. While each of our resident hall rooms are wired for high-speed networking, about 80 percent of our students live off-campus. Increasingly the off-campus students use cable modem service or DSL to reach university resources, and increasingly the university expects that these broadband services are available to our students as we develop course materials.

Through our Penn State online program, we offer more than 50 degree and certification programs on all seven continents, including master’s programs in business administration, project management, and education. We have students who have never taken a college course before, who have attended college but need credits to complete their degree, who are taking additional credits in addition to traditional classes, and who are maintaining their professional education. These online programs are especially valuable to persons with disabilities. Furthermore, we offer an extensive selection of online and mixed media courses to members of the military so, no matter where they are stationed, they can start or continue their studies with Penn State.

We also use networking services to interconnect our campuses and our county offices. We use networking services to allow our researchers to collaborate with colleagues across the country and world and to allow our students to access resources, correspond with friends, and experiment with new network applications. We use networking services to provide information to prospective students, to provide information to parents and alumni, and to provide information to the public at large.

In sum, the availability of low-cost, high-speed, nondiscriminatory internet services is absolutely essential for our university to meet our educational goals in the 21st century.

Penn State is also an active member of both EDUCAUSE and Internet2. EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology. The current membership comprises more than 2,000 colleges, universities, and educational organizations, including 200 corporations, with 15,000 active members.

Internet2 is a not-for-profit partnership of 208 universities, 70 companies, and 51 affiliated organizations, including some federal agencies and laboratories. Its mission is to advance the state of the internet, and it does that primarily by operating for its members a very advanced, private, ultra-high-speed research and education network called Abilene that enables millions of researchers, faculty, students, and staff to “live in the future” of advanced broadband. By providing very high-speed pipes–10,000 times faster than home broadband, in the backbone–it enables its members to try new uses of the network, develop new applications, and experiment with new forms of communications.

In short, the members of Internet2 are experiencing today what we hope the rest of America will be able to have and use in just a few years. Because of the ground-breaking research undertaken by laboratories at Penn State and at other universities within the Internet2 coalition, our students can take advantage of many new technologies and applications that were only dreamed of just a few years ago.

Today, our students are able to take master music classes with world-renowned musicians via DVD-quality video conferencing technology. Recently, students at Wichita State were able to play and take lessons from the New World Symphony in Miami using Internet2’s network. The fidelity of the audio and video is so fine-tuned, it is as if the teacher and the student are in the same room, able to discuss details about playing technique and musical phrasing. Famed oceanographer Bob Ballard is able to take elementary school children on undersea expeditions using Internet2’s network. They can have a two-way video conversation with an underwater diver in real time from any connected school in the country. Imagine the lasting impression this must have, especially for those who may never have experienced the ocean firsthand.

We have a very strong interest in the current telecommunications reform discussion that is unfolding here in the Congress: We have seen an internet future that is possible for this country, and we know that the rules and incentives that you are considering could have an enormous and lasting impact upon the kind of internet we will actually achieve.

The debate over net neutrality is sometimes distorted by those who oppose legislation. They maintain that everyone has a different definition of net neutrality, or that this is a solution in search of a problem. While these pithy phrases might be easy to toss around in casual conversation, they are dead wrong. This issue is not nearly as complicated as the opponents would have you believe. Let me state a few points very clearly.

First, now that the FCC has eliminated the net neutrality requirements for broadband providers, network owners can block traffic at will. A cable or phone company could block access to a senator’s web site or an online journal simply because they disagree with the viewpoint being expressed. The network owner could block or degrade a competitor’s VoIP offering, simply because it competes with the telco’s own VoIP service. There is absolutely no legal requirement to maintain an open network today. At a minimum, Congress must act to prohibit blocking or intentional degradation of internet traffic.

Second, there is one central principle that underlies the entire net neutrality debate–nondiscrimination. Network owners should not be able to give preference to their own services over those of their competitors. Network operators should truly be “neutral”; their job should be to carry traffic on a nondiscriminatory basis. To be sure, there are lots of ways of writing this principle into statutory law, but the variety of language does not mean that there are a variety of meanings to net neutrality. All the advocates of net neutrality with which EDUCAUSE and Internet2 are aligned share this common goal of ensuring an open, nondiscriminatory, neutral internet.

Third, the telephone and cable companies maintain that legislating on net neutrality would prevent them from managing their networks, but this is a misconception. Network management is not a barrier to net neutrality. As network managers ourselves, we understand the need to be concerned with security attacks, spam, and overall congestion–but these should not be used as excuses to discriminate. In short, network management and net neutrality are not in conflict, they are perfectly consistent. In fact, telephone companies today engage in network management of their narrowband networks under a net neutrality regime without difficulty.

Fourth, giving preferential treatment to certain internet traffic (as the telephone and cable companies desire) is not only unfair, it inherently degrades the quality of service provided to others. If a network operator starts to give preference to packets from one source (that perhaps pays the operator for preference), what happens to all of the other, ordinary packets? We know that when an ambulance or fire truck comes down a congested highway, everybody else has to pull over and stop. For emergencies, and for public safety, that is accepted, but what if UPS trucks had the same preference? Giving a preference to the packets of some will degrade the transport for everyone else.

Fifth, allowing the network operators to charge users to deliver traffic on the internet will inherently inhibit nonprofit organizations from using the internet for social good. If economic toll booths are allowed for content and applications to access the internet, then soon only the richest content providers will be able to make their material available. What happens to the small college or university, the little guy, the start-up, the entrepreneur? If charging content providers to carry their bits to local customers had existed ten years ago, we would never have seen universities using the internet for distance learning and telemedicine applications that are widely available today. Universities and colleges simply could not compete with the large online merchants for priority access to the network.

… We at Penn State and other colleges in the EDUCAUSE/Internet2 community have a vital stake in this legislative debate. The openness of the internet has allowed universities to develop important services and applications that are benefiting students, faculty, patients and doctors, users and producers of information. Keeping broadband networks open, inexpensive, and simple is better than costly, complex, and closed. Reinstating the net neutrality rule that was in effect for decades will spawn another amazing wave of innovation and growth. We know, because we have seen part of that future.

About the Author:

eSchool News