Washington’s U.S. senators are worried that the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to roll back net neutrality rules could harm the nation’s students and schools — especially those in rural and low-income communities.
U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Tuesday urging him to preserve the Obama-era regulations until the commission has fully examined the order’s impact on education.
Net neutrality is the basic principle that all data should be passed along at the same speed. The Obama administration issued rules that ban internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or speeding up user access to certain websites, and from negotiating with websites that allow them to reach users faster.
But Pai, a Republican-appointed chairman, is proposing to dismantle those regulations. The FCC is scheduled to vote on his draft order Thursday. Critics of the rule say it would allow internet service providers to block, throttle or otherwise privilege lawful content.
Murray, Cantwell and 19 other Democratic senators signed the letter, which argues that the order could lead to a tiered internet that favors the students, schools and institutions who can afford it.
“Students need access to high-speed internet in order to learn and make the most of their educational experiences,” the senators wrote. “By allowing ISPs to limit access and increase costs, the draft order could threaten educational equity and exacerbate the digital divide.”
Fiscally-strapped schools and school districts would be vulnerable to aggressive ISP pricing practices, the letter said.
Longview School District Communications Director Sandy Catt said local educators are concerned about the elimination of net neutrality rules.
“The use of the internet is not limited to ‘online courses or programs,’” she told The Daily News. “Our teachers and students in nearly every grade level use internet-based materials and information.”
Catt also pointed to a report that found the rule could force districts to to pay more for faster connections, while free educational software and content could get smothered by big corporations.
In their letter, the senators also warned of dire potential consequences for colleges and universities.
“Should the draft order be adopted, video lectures and online learning resources that are essential to institutions of higher education may be rendered unavailable by ISPs that decide to block them or otherwise privilege a computing resource,” the letter said.
At Lower Columbia College, for example, nearly 2,200 students took at least one online course last year — more than 35 percent of the school’s population. And well over half of LCC students participated in at least one “web-enhanced” course in 2016, said Wendy Hall, the school’s communications director.
“As an institution that relies heavily on the internet for delivery of courses and research, we have great concerns about the impact of any restrictions would have on our students and higher education in general,” LCC President Chris Bailey said in an email to the The Daily News.
In related news, state Rep. Norma Smith (R-Clinton) announced a bill Wednesday that would give Washington’s attorney general the authority to enforce net neutrality in the state. The bill would prohibit ISPs from blocking content, throttling traffic and favoring some traffic in exchange for fees.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Smith said in a statement. “The only way to mitigate this threat is to put these rules into statute so everyone across the state, regardless of ZIP code, can participate equally in the 21st century economy.”