Net neutrality repeal: Don't panic

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote tomorrow to repeal the net neutrality order implemented in 2015. The anticipated reversal has sparked heated debate across the country. Leaders across K-12 and higher education have voiced loud criticism of the proposed order, arguing that it could have a devastating effect on content delivery, research and funding, among other things.

But are they right? Will a reversal of the order deal a death blow to education? I spoke with Funds for Learning CEO and E-Rate expert John Harrington to get his take. The interview below has been edited for space and clarity.

What is Chairman Pai proposing?

[Chairman] Pai intends to loosen the net neutrality regulations. These rules were adopted in 2015 to ensure that everyone using the internet has equal access to content. The rules prohibit internet service providers from (A) providing faster access to particular websites for a fee; (B) waiving data charges for a specific service (such as Hulu or Netflix); and (C) slowing down or blocking access to specific websites. According to Chairman Pai, the FCC lacks authority to regulate internet traffic in this way.

Assuming the FCC votes to repeal net neutrality, what is the potential effect on schools? 

Repeal is unlikely to have any significant impact on schools. The net neutrality debate primarily involves consumer subscription web content. Schools already filter their networks to exclude these web sites and the schools themselves do not pay to access these services. To a school or library, it won’t really matter if it costs more to stream a 4K Netflix movie in the future.

Chairman Pai has defended his proposal saying it includes provisions for transparency that will hold telecoms accountable. But does that now add a burden to districts? Will they have to take on the role of policing traffic?

Schools are already required to monitor their internet usage. Therefore, it would not be too hard for them to identify if their internet provider is inappropriately slowing down or blocking access to particular websites.

How could a decision to repeal affect E-Rate?

The only impact would be indirect. Chairman Pai believes that loosening the net neutrality regulations will spur new growth in internet access, providing more options and better service. If he is right, schools will benefit from a more dynamic, competitive marketplace.

Assuming the repeal goes through, what advice do you have for schools as they navigate a new internet terrain?

When seeking bids for internet service, the school should specify that their Internet Service Provider not slow down or block any internet traffic -- except, of course, the traffic that the schools specifically wants filtered.

Why is this repeal good for schools?

Increasingly, schools are using the internet for real-time communications. Whether its distance learning, virtual field trips, or voice over IP telephony, schools are becoming industrial grade users of “live” internet services. No one wants a frozen video screen when they are skyping with a teacher. The new regulations would allow ISPs to offer fast lanes for certain web traffic. This might give schools an opportunity to prioritize live internet video feeds above emails and other web traffic that does not require real time interaction.

What do you think? Drop a line to knamahoe@smartbrief.com to let us know your thoughts on the proposed reversal and how you think it will -- or will not -- affect education.

Kanoe Namahoe is the editor for SmartBrief on EdTech and SmartBrief on Workforce.