Net Neutrality: What It Means for School Districts

The internet, despite coming into existence less than 30 years ago, has become an indispensable resource in modern society. As such, there is much debate about a concept called “net neutrality.”

Net neutrality as a policy means that all internet service providers, the companies that handle internet traffic, must treat all of the digital traffic on their networks equally and must not favor one type or source of traffic over another. Likewise, under net neutrality, providers may not offer favorable access speeds or capacity, for a price or otherwise, to any company, individual, or organization broadcasting or otherwise utilizing the internet to send and receive data.

The Obama administration oversaw the creation of the first national policy, led by the Federal Communications Commission, that established net neutrality as a requirement for internet service providers. This requirement is now being reversed by the current administration. There are ardent advocates on both sides of this issue, with net neutrality supporters arguing for regulation to control how internet bandwidth is managed by service providers and detractors arguing for free markets. Although there are parallels in related industries, like electric power transmission and postal mail delivery, the internet is still in its infancy, so the impact of different policies is hard to predict. But with the growing importance of the internet as a tool for learning, it is important for education leaders to understand what net neutrality is and pay attention to the implications.

Weighing Both Sides of the Debate

Opponents of net neutrality point to the anti-competitiveness of the regulations, which prevent internet service providers from offering products or services, for a fee, that provide any sort of enhancement of performance over the provider’s network. The internet in many ways under net neutrality becomes a regulated utility, like electric power. To many people, this is anti-competitive; the example of how the deregulation of phone service led to enormous innovation—and cost reductions—around telecommunications is often held up as a model. Proponents of net neutrality argue that open access to the internet, free of commercial interference, is the best way to continue the innovation that has exploded around the capabilities the internet enables in society and industry.

For K–12 technology administrators, the impact of the repeal of net neutrality has not been fully revealed. On one hand, it is possible that some of the internet services school districts rely on could be hampered in a non-net-neutral world. For instance, an internet service provider that a school district relies on for access to digital learning technologies could decide to reduce bandwidth for all but a handful of commercial entities willing to pay a “toll” for high performance on the network. On the other hand, it is possible that innovative new services will be enabled because of the market incentives enabled by new competition for network bandwidth.

As yet, despite the decision released by Ajit Pai, FCC chairman on January 4, 2018, to repeal net neutrality, there is little data to suggest where things are headed. But in more than 20 states, efforts are under way to block the net-neutrality repeal.

In my home state of Hawaii, for example, Gov. David Ige recently signed an executive order that forces all state agencies to procure their internet-related services from vendors who agree to abide by the principles of net neutrality. There is also discussion, and a bill in the current legislative session, to create a state-owned internet service provider that would ensure net neutrality for all internet consumers in the state.

The internet is clearly an indispensable tool for the dissemination of learning content and collaboration. What do you think about net neutrality? How do you think the current state of net neutrality is affecting your local school district? And what impacts are you seeing or expecting to see? Join the conversation on LinkedIn.