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After Loss of 'Net Neutrality,' Districts Weigh How to Protect Themselves

As school districts weigh the impact of losing assurances of "net neutrality," a professional organization is encouraging them to protect themselves up-front against a potential decline in the speed and quality of their web access.

The Consortium for School Networking on Tuesday released a tip sheet for district officials on content-delivery practices they should require in contracts with internet service providers.

The consortium, which represents K-12 technology officers, concedes that the document is premised on some speculation and guesswork.

That's because it's unclear how school systems' internet access will be affected—if at all—by last month's closely watched and divisive policy change approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

"I don't think we're saying we have a magic bullet in a post-net neutrality world," said Keith Krueger, the consortium's CEO. "We want to provide practical advice to districts. Are there things they can do, are there protections they can put in place?"

Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers should not be allowed to treat web traffic differently, slowing some content and prioritizing other material based on an organization's ablity to pay for faster service or other factors.

Guarantees in Writing

Like many ed-tech organizations, COSN has argued that the FCC's Dec. 14 vote to dismantle Obama-era net neutrality protections was a mistake that could potentially hurt schools.

That policy decision, championed by Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, reversed a two-year old order designed to protect net neutrality. The earlier order forbade internet service companies from blocking or throttling content—basically degrading or impairing the flow of traffic—or engaging in "paid prioritization" of content.

Pai has argued that the 2015 policy was federal overreach that has stymied innovations by internet service providers that could benefit web users. He says fears that the companies will engage in bad practices are overblown.

Some school leaders and librarians, however, fear that the FCC's change will result in slowing the flow of educational content—such as videos, games, and curricula—that teachers and students rely on.

Others worry that without net neutrality, internet service providers will give preferential treatment to the wealthiest companies and education content providers, while slowing online resources created by small, potentially innovative businesses.

COSN advises districts to take the following steps to protect themselves:

  • They should closely review their service-level agreements with vendors and make sure they include specific metrics on internet performance. The metrics should include the "entire complement of internet traffic," regardless of what internet protocol, or network delivery system, is used by the district.
  • They should ask their ISPs for written assurances that there will be no "preferential treatment" for content, based on site origination or destination, internet protocol, and other factors.

Overall, district tech leaders should not hesitate, when negotiating with internet service providers, to "ask them point blank: 'What is your policy on this?'" said Marie Bjerede, the principal of leadership initiatives for COSN.

The Right to Ask Tough Questions

One lingering question for K-12 officials is how easily they would be able to determine with any certainty that their online content was being slowed or throttled—or if the traffic flow is slowing down for another reason, related to a website, network, or capacity problem.

Ron Reyer, the director of technology services for the Bethel Park School District in Pennsylvania, said answering those questions is far from simple. But K-12 officials have the right to ask internet service companies to provide details on their performance in ensuring fast delivery of content, said Reyer, who worked with a group of school officials who contributed ideas for the COSN document.

The goal should be to "engage vendors, content providers, and [districts] in a three-way conversation on 'How are we going to solve our problem?' " Reyer said.

Fred Campbell, the director of Tech Knowledge, a free-market think tank and a supporter of Pai's policy, said he saw no harm in COSN's advice to districts. But he also does not believe that internet service providers are about to change their practices in ways that will undermine schools. Districts are "enterprise customers," and internet service providers have an incentive to make them happy.

"I'd be very surprised if it is ever necessary," Campbell said of the COSN document. "I see very little to be gained [for those companies] in blocking that content."

COSN's document notes that a consortia of districts will have more leverage with internet service providers in negotiating contract provisions than individual school systems. Districts that have a choice of more than one provider will have that leverage, too, said Krueger.

But many districts have few options, he noted: 43 percent of district technology officials surveyed by COSN last year said they have only one internet service provider available to them.

"We're not as concerned about places with competition," Krueger said. "But if you're in a place with no competition, there's no recourse if your provider doesn't want to do this."

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