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Published in Print: February 18, 2015, as FCC Plan for 'Net Neutrality' Addresses Schools' Needs

FCC Plan for 'Net Neutrality' Addresses Schools' Needs

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler recently released a plan to protect “net neutrality” that would meet the needs of schools in a number of ways.

The proposal, if approved later this month, would for the first time regulate broadband firms that provide high-speed Internet service as though they are public utilities. The goal is to help maintain a free and open Internet, which is the basis of net neutrality.

School and library officials had feared that the FCC, acting in response to a federal court ruling, might change its policies in ways that would restrict access to online resources, specifically by creating a “fast lane” for companies that paid for speedier delivery of their content, which could slow delivery of other content.

But the chairman’s long-awaited proposal, which is a change in direction from an earlier version that triggered a record 4 million public comments, would close the door on that possibility.

“I haven’t met a school yet that doesn’t want an open Internet,” said Evan C. Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates improving Internet access in schools. “We don’t want them to have to pay more to have access.”

Mr. Wheeler apparently took the protests from individuals and organizations to heart. On Feb. 4, he outlined a new plan that would, instead, reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, giving it the same status as a public utility that receives more careful scrutiny of its practices by the FCC.

Under his proposal, the FCC would also:

• Secure new rules for an open Internet that also apply to mobile broadband, since at least 55 percent of Internet traffic is now carried over wireless networks;

• Ban certain practices that impede an open Internet, including “no paid prioritization” for so-called fast lanes;

• Enhance existing transparency rules; and

• Give the commission the authority to hear complaints and take appropriate enforcement action when issues arise about the exchange of traffic between large broadband providers and so-called “edge providers,” which deliver Internet content and services.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the chairman’s proposal on Feb. 26. Most observers expect a partisan 3-2 vote, with the commission’s Democratic majority prevailing, as it did twice last year in making changes to the federal E-rate program.

The E-rate, created by Congress in 1996, pays for improvements to school and library telecommunications services, particularly for disadvantaged communities. In December, the FCC voted to lift the program’s spending cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion a year, and in July, the program was modernized to boost support for Wi-Fi technology and to establish more efficiency.

Those changes received enthusiastic support from education, technology, and industry groups and the American Library Association. The ALA announced its support for Mr. Wheeler’s latest proposal, commending him for “asserting FCC authority under both Title II of the Communications Act and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1966, to provide the strongest possible legal foundation for network neutrality rules,” said Larra Clark, the deputy director of the ALA office for information technology policy.

Impact of Court Ruling

Much of this FCC policy activity originated with a January 2014 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that held the FCC did not have the legal authority to prevent telecommunications providers from blocking the delivery of lawful online content or discriminating against certain kinds of content providers.

That ruling, which was considered a blow to net neutrality, has been interpreted as giving commercial Internet providers significantly more power to block content or set conditions on its delivery before it reaches customers.

As net neutrality hung in the balance, “all the gains we had won under E-rate had been at risk,” said Douglas A. Levin, who recently stepped down as the executive director of the Glen Burnie, Md.-based State Educational Technology Directors Association. “These rules appear to ensure that the playing field is level,” so that schools have the same access as businesses, and ed-tech startups have the same opportunities to reach students as the largest education-content providers.

For Mr. Marwell, a provision in Mr. Wheeler’s proposal that should help schools would ensure that all providers have “fair access to poles and conduits,” part of the above-ground and underground infrastructure needed to deliver broadband. The challenge to get broadband access to all schools can be slowed when a provider that owns a pole, for example, “makes it really hard for a competitor” to gain access to those poles, he said.

While the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition does not take a position on net neutrality, the Washington-based organization is following the issue closely anyway. “We’re very strong proponents of the E-rate program, and will be watching this carefully to make sure there aren’t any unintended consequences” from the policy changes, said John D. Windhausen, the organization’s executive director.

Related Blog

While a favorable vote on Mr. Wheeler’s proposal is expected on Feb. 26, it’s possible this won’t be the last word on net neutrality. Broadband firms are expected to contest being regulated like public utilities. “Of course they’ll challenge,” said Harold J. Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, an organization that promotes an open Internet. “We have courts to resolve these issues.”

Mr. Levin agreed. “It may yet be a number of years before this is completely resolved,” he said.

Vol. 34, Issue 21, Pages 12-13

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