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Last week the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission published his plan to dismantle Obama-era regulations protecting "net neutrality" -- the idea that all web content should be treated equally by internet service providers.

Under the FCC proposal, due to be voted on Dec. 14 by the majority-Republican commission, ISPs would have the freedom to slow down or even block websites or online services that do not serve their commercial interests. They could also charge their customers a fee to prioritize the delivery of their content through the creation of internet “fast lanes.”

Higher education groups have been united in their condemnation of the net neutrality rollback, which they say could make it more difficult for students and the public to access educational resources, and potentially impose huge costs on institutions.

Jarret Cummings, director of policy and government relations at Educause, said the FCC proposal was concerning for higher education on “multiple levels” and would likely have a significant negative impact on higher education “and the internet as a whole.”

A High Price for Higher Ed

The proposal, put forward by Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, would reverse strong rules protecting net neutrality that were established by the (then majority-Democratic) FCC in 2015. Pai, formerly a lawyer for Verizon, was nominated to lead the agency by President Trump in January. Having served as an FCC commissioner since 2012, Pai has made no secret of the fact he thinks the 2015 regulations were a mistake and an example of government overreach. His appointment was celebrated by telecom companies.

If Pai's plan is approved and ISPs are allowed to create a “tiered” system of access, which could prioritize sites willing to pay for faster speeds, higher education institutions may be forced to pay fees to ensure that their online content, particularly bandwidth-guzzling video, continues to be accessible to students and the public at workable speeds, said Cummings.

Third-party services like email, particularly those that are cloud-based and require a fast and secure internet connection, may also be forced to pay ISPs to use the “fast lane” with increased costs passed on to customers. Jon Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said the cost increase to higher education institutions would likely be “massive,” as “there is no part of modern higher education that doesn’t depend on the internet,” he said. He added that much of this cost would likely be passed on to students “for no appreciable benefit.”

While the impact of the changes may sound trivial -- some webpages taking longer than others to load, for instance -- Fansmith said the net effect would be substantial and detrimental. “Imagine you’re a student taking an online exam, or trying to submit work by a deadline,” he said. The ability to participate in collaborative research in real time could also be impeded, said Fansmith.

Another potential impact of the FCC proposal, though not one Fansmith says he thinks is likely, is a limitation of free speech. Internet providers could, if they wished, block access to content their users find objectionable, said Fansmith. This could have a chilling impact on research on controversial issues such as gun control or abortion, said Fansmith.

A Widening Digital Divide

Though some universities have private networks or are part of National Research and Education Networks that will not be affected by the FCC rule change, many institutions still rely on commercial internet providers to send and receive information, said Cummings. Regardless of which networks are used on campus, students accessing content off campus or on their mobile phones could still encounter issues.

Janna Anderson, professor of communications and director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University, said she was particularly concerned about the impact of dismantling net neutrality on distance education. She said the introduction of paid prioritization from ISPs could “crush the potential for amazing breakthroughs in education for all.”

Many online educators were experimenting with technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, which could “much more effectively carry the opportunity for a first-rate higher education to anyone, anywhere,” Anderson said. But as these technologies would require substantial bandwidth, they may no longer be accessible at usable speeds to students accessing content from home.

“Added costs and complexities that may accompany a rejection of net neutrality principles will make it difficult to develop and implement these education innovations and deliver them to the public far and wide,” said Anderson. Such a change, she warned, “will further widen the digital divide.”

Another divide could emerge between those with the resources to pay for prioritization and those without, said Jessica Sebeok, associate vice president and counsel for policy at the Association of American Universities. This consequence of the rule change would particularly affect community colleges and smaller state institutions, she said.

Kris Shaffer, an instructional technology specialist at the University of Mary Washington, said many students working from home already have slow internet, making it difficult for them to access course materials. If ISPs start charging customers more for content such as video, this issue may get worse, he said.

At Mary Washington, many students take part in an institutionwide initiative called Domain of One’s Own, in which they are encouraged to create their own websites and share the content with friends. Shaffer says the university works with small companies to provide this service to students -- companies that, he worries, wouldn’t have the cash to buy prioritization from ISPs, potentially making the websites less accessible to the public.

“The internet was invented for universities. If educational content is now going to take a back seat … it’s disheartening, to say the least,” said Shaffer.

Potential Legal Challenges

Going forward, both Cummings and Fansmith agree that it is likely the FCC will vote to roll back net neutrality regulations next month. Legal challenges from open-internet advocates are likely to follow, however. If the changes hold, it is unlikely that colleges will notice differences overnight, said Cummings, but the internet will slowly change. Tracking whether access to institutional content is being restricted or slowed will be tricky, but even if it is observed, Cummings said he thought it was unlikely that individual institutions would have the resources to take legal action to rectify it.

The FCC says that ISPs should be transparent about how they implement the rule change, and suggests that many won’t make large changes for fear of losing out to competitors. But in many areas, there is no real competition between internet providers, said Cummings. While ISPs such as Comcast have said they do not plan to introduce paid prioritization, the providers are said to be supportive of the FCC proposal.

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