Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Google, and Lowell McAdam, president and CEO of Verizon Wireless, are two major players in the net neutrality debate.

Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Google, and Lowell McAdam, president and CEO of Verizon Wireless, announced a business partnership last year. (AP)

Default Lines column, September 2010 edition of eSchool News—The future of digital-age learning could hinge on the boardroom deals being made by giant corporations as they seek to head off “net neutrality” regulations … and education leaders ought to speak up to make sure their voices are heard on this critical issue.

As we report in our story “Net-neutrality agreement sparks concerns,” Google and Verizon have floated a plan they hope can serve as a framework for federal regulators in drafting rules for net neutrality, which is the idea that internet providers can’t discriminate against certain types of traffic flowing over their lines. But several public-interest groups have slammed the companies’ proposal, saying it would lead to a two-tiered system of internet use that favors large organizations over smaller competitors.

The plan hatched by Google and Verizon would prevent service providers from slowing down, blocking, or charging to prioritize internet traffic flowing over their regular broadband lines. But it exempts wireless carriers from these restrictions. It also leaves room for broadband providers to charge extra to route traffic from so-called “premium services” over dedicated networks that are separate from the public internet.

Broadband providers have been doing everything they can to squelch the development of net-neutrality regulations. They argue that such restrictions would keep them from managing traffic over their networks effectively as bandwidth needs continue to multiply. Having invested billions of dollars in upgrading their lines for broadband, they also want to be able to charge more for premium services to monetize their investment.

Google’s and Verizon’s plan seeks a compromise on net neutrality, one that would preserve the open nature of the internet … to an extent. Sure, wireline providers would be barred from throttling certain kinds of internet traffic, like Comcast did to users of the peer-to-peer file sharing web site BitTorrent two years ago–but wireless carriers essentially would be free to do what they want. That’s a little like saying the fire department will answer calls for residents with one-story houses, but not two.

Google and Verizon argue that wireless carriers face steeper hurdles in managing bandwidth to make sure internet “road hogs” don’t ruin the experience for everyone, and their plan stipulates that wireless carriers would have to disclose their network management techniques to consumers. Such transparency should be enough to ensure that wireless companies play fair, they say–but when has transparency alone been enough to protect consumers? Cellular providers already disclose their ridiculously high early termination fees for breaking a two-year contract, and the practice still continues. If every major provider decides to adopt a certain lucrative business practice, the threat of competition does little to change this behavior.

Google and Verizon also have taken heat for leaving the door open for providers to charge more for “premium services” streamed over dedicated networks–the part of the plan that public-interest groups say would create an internet “fast lane” that favors large businesses with the resources to pay. If this were to happen, critics say, what incentive would broadband providers have to sink resources into the old public internet? Clearly, they could reap higher profit margins by focusing on these new private networks–and without regulations to stop them, that’s where they might funnel all their investments.

All this might sound a little wonkish–but the fallout from these debates will have enormous implications for the future of education.

Don’t believe me? Consider how important having reliable broadband access is to the quality of online instruction. Now, think of how important online instruction is to the future of teaching and learning. If private companies and large research universities were allowed to pay for preferential treatment of their video streams and other distribution of content, where would that leave smaller colleges and K-12 schools?

Because they’re cheaper than desktop computers, cell phones and other mobile devices are seen as an increasingly important way for low-income students to access online courses. But in the absence of net-neutrality regulations for wireless carriers, how will mobile users’ online experience fare when compared with that of their peers who are taking a course over a wireline broadband connection? Will they have the same quality of access to educational opportunities, or will their experience suffer?