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.”
Higher-education organizations such as the Association of American Universities (AAU), EDUCAUSE, and the American Council on Education have lobbied Congress in recent years to support a neutral internet policy that would require telecommunications companies to adopt more transparent network management practices.
“University research laboratories are developing next-generation internet technologies that will drive the internet economy,” AAU wrote in a letter to members of the Congressional Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “These technologies will require an open and accessible internet to develop and flourish.”
EDUCAUSE and Internet2, an organization that advocates internet innovation, wrote in a letter to the FCC and President Obama that establishing net-neutrality laws would “safeguard the ability of students, faculty, and staff to rely upon their broadband connections to engage in the free flow of ideas without interference by commercial internet service providers.”
“Preserving the openness of the internet is as fundamental to our institutions of higher education as the principle of academic freedom,” Greg Jackson, EDUCAUSE’s vice president for policy and analysis, and Gary Bachula, Internet2’s vice president for external relations, said in the statement.
Critics of Genachowski’s proposal say internet growth can only continue if government does not institute policies that regulate telecommunications companies. Hands Off The Internet, an Arlington-Va.-based organization lobbying against net-neutrality policies, has said such government intervention would interrupt market forces that could keep prices down for web users. Hands Off The Internet did not return several interview requests from eCampus News.
The Republicans are calling on Genachowski to conduct a “thorough market analysis” to determine whether new regulations are necessary.
Their points echoed those made in a letter that House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia sent to President Barack Obama on Oct. 2.
Genachowski’s office had no comment on the letters.
Meanwhile in the Senate, the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, is considering legislation that would prohibit the FCC from developing net-neutrality rules.
Genachowski’s proposal calls for the FCC to formally adopt four existing principles that have guided the agency’s enforcement of communications laws since 2005. Those principles state that network operators must allow subscribers to access all legal online content, applications, services, and devices.
Genachowski also is calling for the FCC to adopt two additional principles that would prevent broadband providers from discriminating against particular content or applications and would require them to be open about their network management practices. And he is calling for the agency to apply these rules across different types of broadband networks, including wireless networks.
Activist organizations siding with Genachowski and others favoring net neutrality said adoption of the proposed policies would simply be a return to the “status quo,” before telecommunications corporations built massive data networks across the globe.
“To suggest that a return to that status quo threatens broadband investment is not borne out by experience,” said Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition (OIC), an organization that promotes open internet policies. “In fact, it is critical to investment that this issue be addressed sooner, rather than later. Further delay in addressing this core policy issue will harm investment flows into new and innovative technologies.”
The OIC’s list of supporters reads as a who’s who of internet powerhouses, including Google, Amazon, Ask.com, and YouTube. EDUCAUSE is also a supporter of OIC’s lobbying efforts to create an accessible internet with net-neutrality policies.
Hands Off The Internet
Association of American Universities