Education advocates push for net neutrality

Online courses could cost more if telecom companies are unregluated, educators say.
Online courses could cost more if telecom companies are unregluated, educators say.

Republican opposition is mounting as federal regulators prepare to vote this month on so-called “network neutrality” rules, which would prohibit broadband providers from favoring or discriminating against certain types of internet traffic flowing over their lines. Educators say a neutral internet is a key in developing and delivering online content to distance learners and students in rural areas, and an unregulated internet would create unfair advantages for large universities that could pay more for faster, more efficient web service.

Twenty House Republicans–including most of the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee–sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski on Oct. 5 urging him to delay the Oct. 22 vote on his net neutrality plan.

Genachowski, one of three Democrats on the five-member commission, wants to establish rules to ensure that broadband providers don’t abuse their power over internet access to favor their own services or harm competitors.

Democrats say the rules will keep phone companies from discriminating against internet calling services and stop cable TV providers from hindering online video applications.

But in a letter to Genachowski on Oct. 5, Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, the top Republican on the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, and his colleagues warned that new net-neutrality regulations could discourage broadband providers from investing in their networks. The letter said that if internet service providers can’t manage traffic on their networks to ensure efficient service, consumers could suffer.

Wendy Wigen, a government relations officer for higher-education technology advocate EDUCAUSE, said failure to pass a net-neutrality law would mean the country’s largest universities could pay telecommunications companies for preferential treatment, while small community colleges without similar financial means would be at a distinct disadvantage.

“[Colleges] could pay to be in the fast lane,” Wigen said. “These managed services would take over what we think of as the public internet. … The idea that our content would be discriminated against is disturbing, to say the least. We don’t want whoever pays the most [to get] the best treatment.”

Opposition to a neutral internet, Wigen said, was bound to surface in the weeks and months before lawmakers considered passing major proposals.

“I think it was very predictable,” she said of the Republicans’ letter to the FCC. “I think we’ll see more and more of that pushback. It’s awoken the sleeping giants, so to speak.”

Campus officials worry that a tiered-system of internet service–a likely scenario without passage of a net-neutrality plan–might raise the already skyrocketing costs of a college education.

Tracy Stewart, vice president of IT at Regents University in Virginia Beach, Va., said her school–with half of its 5,000 students taking web-based classes–relies heavily on fast, consistent delivery of online educational content.

Net neutrality makes online education “affordable for a lot of people,” Stewart said. “If all of a sudden we have to pay more, we would have to pass every bit of that on to the students. We try to keep the price as low as we can, but there are costs with that.”

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