From Neutrality to Inequality: Why the FCC Is Dismantling Equal Access...

column | Digital Learning in Higher Ed

From Neutrality to Inequality: Why the FCC Is Dismantling Equal Access and What It Could Mean for Education

By Robert Ubell (Columnist)     Dec 20, 2017

From Neutrality to Inequality: Why the FCC Is Dismantling Equal Access and What It Could Mean for Education

Faculty members who teach face-to-face may imagine that last week’s vote by the Federal Communications Commission to dismantle net neutrality doesn’t touch them, since their instruction is exclusively on campus, not plugged in to the web. Unfortunately, they’re mistaken.

Online or off, teaching and doing research in today’s immersive digital environment makes it almost impossible for anyone—even technophobes—to hide from the web. These days hardly a class exists at any college or university that operates without logging onto a learning management system. The college library, catalog, financial aid, admissions, registration, and of course, the school’s website, all have important digital services and are all easily accessible on the net. Today, no one can teach, perform research, issue grades, enroll, or engage in a thousand and one other routine functions, without clicking on a computer or smartphone. Like blood rushing through the university’s veins, the internet is the juice that connects everything.

Previous FCC standards for the internet were mandated in 2015 under President Obama and initiated earlier in the Bush administration with the FCC’s Open Internet Order in 2010. Core net-neutrality principles go back to the very early days of the web with its cyber-utopian ideals. Under previous FCC action, internet-service providers (ISP) were prohibited from blocking, slowing-down or speeding-up access to web content and services. The old rules also prevented providers from charging content producers and customers extra fees for faster service. Under the new FCC guidelines, these historic protections will now be crippled.

That’s why nearly every major higher education body—American Association of Universities, Council of Independent Colleges, and EDUCAUSE, among nearly a dozen others—has come out against the move led by FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, the new FCC chair who is a former Verizon senior executive.

Key higher-ed technology executives, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, warn that “One thing is certain: After December 14, higher education will face a new online world—one in which the almighty dollar, not equity, will reign.”

Jon Fansmith, of the American Council on Education, told Inside Higher Ed that the cost to schools is likely to be “massive” as “there is no part of higher education that doesn’t depend on the internet.” Of course, elite institutions with deep pockets will easily sustain the blows, but smaller, less well-heeled schools will bear the brunt along with public universities that already suffer austerity.

Under the new rules, these are some possible scenarios facing higher education:

  • Pay for Play. Institutions offering online programs may be required to pay ISPs a premium to deliver virtual courses. Digital courses often run on heavy data usage with serious information transmission demands.
  • Sky-High Cloud. It’s possible that universities will be slapped with extra charges for using their relatively new cloud-based storage and services.
  • Slow Lane. Without FCC protection, institutions that rely on low-cost connections may see their online content moved to a slow lane as they watch others, who pay top dollar, speed along the internet superhighway.
  • Monopoly Gauging. Many rural areas are served by a single internet provider. “There’s no competition in many parts of the country,” Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, told Education Week. Under the previous FCC rules, ISPs were prohibited from charging more in rural areas, but that protection has been removed.
  • Stalled Research. Modern research today depends crucially on high-speed access to massive datasets; now colleges could be saddled with new charges for comparable access.
  • Clogged Streams. Coursera, edX, Khan Academy and other massive course providers run almost exclusively on HD video streaming—an innovation initially propelled by internet neutrality. Who knows how much ISPs will now bill MOOCs and others for eating-up vast chunks of bandwidth?
  • Trickle-down Student Fees. As web costs go up for colleges, the institutions may pass them along to the last in line—the nation’s students, already strapped with $1.2 trillion in debt.
  • Academic Unfreedom. When the web was just emerging, it was ushered in during a confident era of inclusion. Some imagined it was poised to liberate the public square as the culmination of a utopian democratic dream, with massive citizen participation. Much of its promise actually happened. Wikipedia is a popular example of the dream come true. In China and other autocratic societies, however, the internet has been used as a weapon of state control.

Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s, is said to have originated the slogan “Information wants to be free,” an idea that eventually sparked the open-source movement.

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable,” Brand declared. “The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

The new FCC rules do not follow in the liberated direction imagined by the internet’s inventors. With ISPs given the reckless authority to block and shutdown sites, academic freedom is a potential target—along with other guarantees of equal access.

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