Digital Life in the Slow Lane

December 03, 2017

Jon Krause for The Chronicle

On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission will reverse the net-neutrality rules it established in 2015. The existing rules prevent internet-access providers from blocking, slowing down, or speeding up customer access to online content and services. They also prevent the providers from charging content producers and their customers extra for faster access to those products.

Internet-access providers say that the end of net neutrality will have little impact on the day-to-day experience of using the internet, and that the current net-neutrality rules are a prime example of unnecessary federal overreach. The public-interest community asserts that net neutrality’s demise will lead to higher costs and content discrimination. 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.

Today, a college campus without robust and ubiquitous internet access is unthinkable. The internet, and interactions with internet-connected devices and applications, is part of the daily life of millions of college administrators, faculty and staff members, and students. The internet enables communication, collaboration, research, and transactional activities that permeate, if not define, campus life. The free flow of digital content, data, and online interactions enabled by net neutrality democratizes our digital world.

What will higher education look like post-December 14? Will this change slow down learning, research, and innovation? Little is likely to change immediately, but over time, such a fundamental shift could have far-reaching implications.

The ability of disadvantaged students to access a high-quality education could be disproportionately compromised. The internet is called the greatest innovation for teaching and learning since the Gutenberg press. Before the printing press, written information was scarce and expensive. As a result, literacy rates were low, often limited to the elite. The printing press allowed culture, literature, and entrepreneurship to blossom. Access to information has historically been a boon for innovation, opportunity, and prosperity. Now, losing the neutrality of the net threatens to re-stratify access to information and resources that provide both equity and access to knowledge.

A world without net neutrality is a world that caters to those who can afford add-on service packages that increase speed, or those with the patience to sit through advertising-heavy access portals. Picture a first-generation, low-income student who can’t afford to live on campus. She pays her own rent and utilities, buys her own food. Wi-Fi and battery life are sometimes joked about as additions to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but food and shelter take precedence.

While a college may provide this student with a learning-management system to access course materials, collaborate with other students, interact with instructors, and submit assignments, she may not be able to afford a high-speed internet-access package that allows her to take advantage of it. Tiered pricing of internet access based on content — a possible outcome of rolling back net neutrality — could limit her access to education and perpetuate her disadvantaged status.

The cost of access to learning and student-success tools could rise. According to a recent Educause survey of undergraduate students, "the most useful student success technologies … are designed to facilitate students’ management of their academic careers: degree audit tools that show the degree requirements completed, degree planning or mapping tools that identify courses needed for degree completion, and online self-service tools for conducting student-related business."

Those systems are data-dependent and, at scale, rely on real-time information. Without net neutrality, a major internet provider could charge the vendor that created the tools extra for high-speed analysis, delivery, or on-demand integration to university systems via expensive "fast lanes." Those additional costs would very likely be passed along to students via higher tuition or fees.

Commercial and entertainment traffic could take priority over educational and research traffic. The net-neutral environment does not distinguish the type or the recipient of information as a means for a pricing model for internet transmission — a packet is a packet. Without net neutrality, internet-service providers can differentiate fee structures on the basis of what’s transmitted and to whom it’s transmitted.

There’s a major concern that commercial, revenue-generating internet traffic will take precedence over educational and research traffic. The quality and consistency of access to research, libraries, educational institutions, and learning materials could be degraded as those resources are moved to the slow lane to make room for commercial and entertainment traffic that can pay for speed.

Internet-service providers can sell more bandwidth and preferred access to entertainment conglomerates or other wealthy corporations and squeeze bandwidth for those who can’t compete with the fees, including libraries, colleges, and research institutions. It’s is worth noting that a lot of media and entertainment content is owned fully or partially by the carriers themselves, creating an irresistible incentive to prioritize their own products over resources offered for the public good.

The pace of research and innovation could slow significantly. The days of researchers working alone late at night in a single laboratory searching for a breakthrough are over. University researchers churn through enormous data sets looking for patterns that can lead to insights that, say, may revolutionize cancer treatment or help them design more-efficient solar panels. Research colleagues across the state, the continent, or the ocean are becoming more common as the internet eliminates geography as a barrier to collaborative scientific work.

When the telescope you’re controlling is in Chile and the terabytes of data it generates are shared by your collaborators in Germany, anything short of open, unfettered access to the internet would slow the speed of research, delaying scientific discovery and invention. This is especially true for smaller start-ups that can’t pay large fees for reasonable download speeds associated with their services. That could become a significant deterrent for new, innovative providers to create the next generation of tools for learning or research.

Given those concerns, it should come as no surprise that a long list of higher-education and library associations representing thousands of institutions oppose this change on some of the grounds outlined here, among many others.

The open, unbiased, unfettered exchange of information is the very foundation of our ability to research, to educate, and to innovate. When net neutrality ends this month, we will see that foundation start to crumble.

Joseph South is chief learning officer at ISTE, the International Society for Technology and Education. Eden Dahlstrom is executive director of the New Media Consortium, a higher-education-technology group.