Net Neutrality Isn’t Only About How Fast You Can Stream Netflix—Just Ask a Teacher

The slowdown of site download speeds will affect teachers’ and students’ ability to access a full variety of resources.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

At a time when President Obama wants every American school wired for the Internet, the phrase “net neutrality” hardly resonates with most Internet users—it gets about as much attention as the fine print in the “I accept” boxes you click to use the Wi-Fi at Starbucks.

Yet a pending Federal Communications Commission decision on net neutrality could have a huge impact on the way our technology-dependent society uses the Internet, particularly in the classroom. As computers move from an option to a necessity in most schools, a change in net neutrality rules would dramatically affect how teachers do their jobs and would threaten to leave poor or rural students behind.

“If you move to an Internet where [service providers] get to play favorites and pick winners and losers, it really changes the environment for innovation,” says David Sohn, general counsel for the advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology. “If there’s less innovation, there will be fewer choices for schools.”

At issue is the idea that Internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T should treat all the digital traffic in their pipes the same way, without exception. Video-streaming services like Netflix, however, generate huge amounts of digital traffic—as much as 30 percent during peak hours, causing the equivalent of a digital traffic jam.

The industry has a remedy: a higher-priority “fast lane” that would prioritize some Web traffic and streamline delivery. In exchange for a fee, consumers—and big tech companies such as Google—could use the lane to stream music, play movies, binge-watch TV shows, or deliver Web-search results more quickly, with fewer interruptions.

Everyone else, however, would be relegated to the traffic-clogged slow lane, forced to deal with the lags, hassles, and interruptions in service that the fast-lane consumers pay to avoid. Case in point: After a nasty PR battle over whether Comcast had deliberately slowed down delivery of its content, Netflix paid the telecom giant an undisclosed amount—believed to be several millions of dollars—for priority streaming and uninterrupted service.

In the classroom, the two-tiered system could deny teachers and students access to the latest information, innovation, ideas, and educational research, advocates say. At the same time, being relegated to the slow lane could mean students in underserved school districts would fall further behind their wealthier peers.

“On a macro scale, it reduces the universe of sites and apps and places people can use to study or learn about things,” said Michael Weinberg, vice president of the free-Internet advocacy group Public Knowledge. If you’re not paying extra, he said, “only some sites will work very well, and you’ll stick to those. But if it’s a tech site or a start-up site that can’t pay for the fast lane, you won’t use it.”

Outside the classroom, “teachers use [the Internet] among themselves to prepare lessons and get resources,” Weinberg said. If the Internet remains free for everyone, “teachers aren’t restricted to the information physically available to them in their schools.”

Moreover, Weinberg said, telecom giants chasing big profits could decide to offer the fast-lane service only in areas that can afford it—“virtual red-lining,” he said. That would relegate students in poor or rural school districts and struggling communities to second-class status and cause them to fall further behind their more affluent peers.

“It’s not like the ISPs get up in the morning saying, ‘How can I destroy American education?’ ” he said. Still, “if you’re an ISP, you need to make sure the slow lane is slow enough for the fast lane to be worth the price.”

With billions of dollars at stake, telecom giants such as Verizon and AT&T are lobbying the FCC hard to have it roll back current net-neutrality rules. At the same time, the FCC is weighing a proposal that would keep most of the Internet open but allow ISPs to create a fast lane; in May, it voted 3–2 to proceed with the changes, but a final decision won’t be reached until September, after a summer-long open-comment period.

A coalition of advocates and educators, however, has taken up the cause, urging people to contact the FCC and demand an open Internet.

“The good news is, we’ve seen millions of people write in” during the summer comment period, urging the FCC to preserve net neutrality, Weinberg said. “We’ve seen them push the needle.”

Still, the final decision on a two-tiered Internet “is directly tied to the number of people who tell Congress or the FCC about it,” Weinberg said. “Nothing is inevitable, but that path [away from neutrality] is paved with apathy.”