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Why Net Neutrality Matters on The College Campus

Consider what would happen if your internet service provider (ISP) had the right to slow speeds for websites at its discretion. That could be the result of the recent decision to end net neutrality, and while its implications are serious for all Americans, they will have particularly dire consequences for those in higher education.

Once net neutrality is repealed, ISPs will have the power to block websites and can also choose to offer speedier access to certain sites, essentially dividing the web into “slow” and “fast” lanes.

As The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization sums it up,Without the Open Internet Rule, cable and phone companies will pick what you see, what you pay, and what you have to pay extra for.”

A brief primer on net neutrality

Most of us assume that a free and open internet, where all content is treated the same, is our right… and it has indeed been the law of the land.

The first net neutrality-related rule was established in 2005 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) intervened in a case where a North Carolina phone company was blocking an app its customers were using to make phone calls. Net neutrality was solidified in 2015 under the Open Internet Rule, designed to maintain the internet as a level playing field.

But that regulation was reversed on Dec. 14 when the FCC voted 3-2 to repeal net neutrality, a decision made official when it was published with the Federal Register on Feb. 22.

Activists have a slight reprieve: The new rule is not scheduled to go into effect until April 23, and the attorneys general of more than 20 states have filed lawsuits to stop the repeal.

What the demise of net neutrality might mean for higher education

Here are five damaging implications that will affect the university community if net neutrality is repealed:

1. Access to research and other university and library resources could be inhibited.

While no one knows exactly how ISPs will react, they could decide to grant the fastest access to companies that pay for the right. In a “pay-to-play” situation, “higher education institutions, libraries, and other public interest entities face a future in which they will either have to pay to ensure effective, appropriate end-user access to their online resources and services or risk seeing such access degraded,” says Jarret Cummings, director of policy and government relations for EDUCAUSE.

2. The student experience could be compromised.

In today’s wired world, college students rely on the internet to stream lectures, conduct research, access and turn in assignments, participate in group work sessions and take exams. If speeds to the sites supporting these activities were throttled, the effects could be significant for students who depend on connectivity.

Even lecture attendance could become harder to track as “clickers” are increasingly phased out as a default, and mobile apps becomes more prevalent. That’s because 700 people in a cavernous lecture hall checking in simultaneously could strain the capabilities of Wi-Fi, says David Test, group leader for classroom technology at Penn State, in an article in InsideHigherEd.

3. The virtual classroom could be dismantled.

The virtual classroom could become prohibitively expensive and harder to access if ISPs change their pricing tiers, causing students to hit their data caps quickly as they access coursework and streaming video as part of their distance learning. And students in rural areas could be impacted disproportionately, since they may be the most reliant on remote learning and often have fewer ISP choices.

4. Costs could rise.

Not only might universities face a “pay-to-play” scenario for others to access their own sites, but ISPs could raise prices for the network that students use. In addition, the vendors who supply the educational apps and websites schools depend on are likely to transfer their own increased costs to institutional users.

“Those costs can’t simply be swallowed by schools, so they will be passed on to students and their families without any additional benefit provided to them,” writes Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education (ACE), in the Washington Post.

5. Free speech could be curtailed.

Universities are bastions of free speech, as students explore new viewpoints and give voice to causes they believe in. Without net neutrality, there’s nothing stopping ISPs from censoring debate and opinions they or their shareholders object to.

The internet: intertwined with universities

Colleges have many reasons to be concerned about the potential repeal of net neutrality, but there’s another core issue, and that’s history: universities have been at the forefront of the internet’s rise since the beginning. In 1969, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles hosted the first connection of two computers, paving the way for what would eventually become the web as we know it today.

Universities have cause to be alarmed by the potential dismantling of an open internet: After all, they built it. Staying on top of changes and best practices will be critical for helping support their students in the future.