Could net-neutrality ruling hinder online education?

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's net-neutrality and national broadband plans are in danger after an April 6 court ruling.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's net-neutrality and national broadband plans are in danger after an April 6 court ruling.

A federal court threw the future of internet regulations and U.S. broadband expansion plans into doubt April 6 with a far-reaching decision that went against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The ruling poses a major hurdle for federal policy that school and college administrators hoped would ensure the growth of online education and make high-speed internet affordable for even the smallest school systems and campuses.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC lacks the authority to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all internet traffic flowing over their networks. That was a big victory for Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable company, which had challenged the FCC’s authority to impose such “net neutrality” obligations on broadband providers.

The ruling marks a serious setback for the FCC, which is trying to adopt official net-neutrality regulations. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, argues that such rules are needed to prevent phone and cable companies from using their control over internet access to favor some online content and services over others.

Education technology advocates have said that without net-neutrality rules, the price of online learning eventually could prove untenable for students. If broadband providers are left unchallenged, they say, the price of web access could skyrocket in coming years, discouraging students from taking web-based courses and making it impossible for smaller schools to compete in the online-learning market.

“The more time a student spent online, the higher [his or her] internet bill would be,” said Larry Johnson, CEO of the Texas-based New Media Consortium, an international coalition of universities, colleges, libraries, and technology companies. “It would come to a point … where [students] wouldn’t want to do distance learning anymore.”

In interviews with eSchool News over the past year, education decision makers said failure to pass net-neutrality regulations would mean the country’s largest universities could pay telecommunications companies for preferential treatment, while small colleges with smaller bank accounts would be at a distinct disadvantage.

Only 16 percent of the 3,439 community college campuses in the U.S. have access to the kind of high-speed internet service that is available at more than 90 percent of research universities, according to the FCC.

A group of more than 20 open internet and consumer advocacy organizations sent a letter to Genachowski Oct. 21 that said more than 1.6 million Americans have declared their support for net-neutrality laws.

“They do not want the internet to become just another closed network where large media entities pick winners and losers, like broadcasting and cable,” the letter said.

The decision also has serious implications for the massive national broadband plan released by the FCC last month. The FCC needs clear authority to regulate broadband in order to push ahead with some of its key recommendations, including a proposal to expand broadband by tapping the federal fund that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural communities.

In a statement, the FCC said it remains “firmly committed to promoting an open internet and to policies that will bring the enormous benefits of broadband to all Americans” and “will rest these policies … on a solid legal foundation.”

Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition—which includes web giants like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and the education technology organization EDUCAUSE—said in an April 6 statement that the court decision means the FCC is “now unable to police the internet against anti-competitive and anti-consumer behavior by broadband providers” and could endanger the agency’s national broadband plan, which has broad support among educators.

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