College IT officials track Google, Verizon talks

Genachowski's net neutrality plan has received wide-ranging support from educators.
Genachowski's net neutrality plan has received wide-ranging support from educators.

Higher education technologists, who largely support the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality plans, kept an eye on reports Aug. 5 that internet giants Google and Verizon were on the verge of announcing a deal that would provide faster web speeds only to content providers who could pay a premium.

IT decision makers in colleges and universities have said such a precedent could undermine major strides in providing educational content online, especially for small institutions without massive technology budgets.

After media reports said Google, which owns YouTube, and Verizon were hammering out the final details in the creation of “pay tiers” for internet users–a system that the FCC’s net neutrality plan was designed to avoid — Google responded with a statement calling the reports “quite simply wrong.”

The statement said Google had not “had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google or YouTube traffic. We remain as committed as we always have been to an open internet.”

David Fish, a Verizon spokesman, said in an Aug. 5 statement that the media report “fundamentally misunderstands our purpose. As we said in our earlier FCC filing, our goal is an internet policy framework that ensures openness and accountability, and incorporates specific FCC authority, while maintaining investment and innovation. To suggest this is a business arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect.”

Education-technology advocates said that without net-neutrality rules, the price of online learning soon could prove untenable for students. If broadband providers are left unchallenged, the price of web access could skyrocket in coming years, discouraging students from pursuing web-based college courses, they said.

Higher-ed IT officials said they were concerned with the barrage of news stories detailing the private meetings between Google and one of the web’s leading service providers, but they would not speak on the record after Google and Verizon denied the reports and cast suspicion on the news outlets.

Still, some officials detailed the potential repercussions of a “pay tier” system that undermined net neutrality, a plan FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has said is needed to prevent phone and cable companies from using their control over web access to favor some online content and services over others.

“Tiered pricing based solely on the brand or source of content is a very bad idea,” said Brenda van Gelder, director of Virginia Tech’s eCorridors program, which promotes web access in local Virginia communities.

van Gelder added that nonprofit organizations, rural entrepreneurs, “community colleges, and perhaps even large research universities [that] do not have connectivity to the national education networks” would suffer in a market that limited internet speeds for customers who couldn’t pay top dollar.

Google and Verizon released a joint statement Oct. 21 affirming that “both [companies] think it’s essential that the internet remains an unrestricted and open platform–where people can access any content (so long as it’s legal), as well as the services and applications of their choice.”

Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Verizon President and CEO Lowell McAdam said in the statement that the two companies “might seem unlikely bedfellows in the current debate around network neutrality, or an open internet.”