Citing Unknown Impacts on Students and Schools, Senators Cantwell and Murray Demand Delay of Net Neutrality Decision
Senators are concerned rolling back net neutrality could exacerbate education inequity and increase digital divide
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate education committee, and 20 U.S. Senators sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai urging him to consider how a free, fair and open internet provides our nation’s students with opportunities to learn and succeed. Senators requested Chairman Pai delay the proposed vote to undo net neutrality until he specifically addresses the impacts on students and schools—specifically those in rural or low-income communities, as well as how it will address education equity and the digital divide.
“By overturning the Commission’s current rules that preserve net neutrality and prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking, throttling, or otherwise privileging lawful content, we fear that the Draft Order could harm our nation’s students and schools—especially those in rural and low-income communities,” the senators wrote. “We urge you to delay this monumental decision to dismantle net neutrality until you have fully examined the Draft Order’s impact on our nation’s students and their ability to learn.”
Allowing internet service providers to limit access and increase costs could increase the digital divide for students in rural and low-income areas, where their only access to the internet may be at a resource-constrained school or a public library. This decision could also hinder teachers’ and students’ ability to access educational materials from around the globe and make it more difficult for students with disabilities and English learners to receive a high-quality education. On December 14, the Commission is expected to vote along party lines in favor of Chairman Pai’s proposal, which will roll back the FCC’s current prohibitions against blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization and will give more power to internet service providers (ISPs).
In addition to Senators Murray and Cantwell, the letter was signed by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ed Markey (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jack Reed (D-RI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Al Franken (D-MN), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).
Full text of letter below and PDF HERE.
December 12, 2017
The Honorable Ajit Pai
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street Southwest
Washington, DC 20554
Dear Chairman Pai:
We write today regarding your draft order—the Restoring Internet Freedom Order (“the Draft Order”) —and its potential impacts on students, schools, and institutions of higher education. By overturning the Commission’s current rules that preserve net neutrality and prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking, throttling, or otherwise privileging lawful content, we fear that the Draft Order could harm our nation’s students and schools—especially those in rural and low-income communities. We urge you to delay this monumental decision to dismantle net neutrality until you have fully examined the Draft Order’s impact on our nation’s students and their ability to learn.
In the past four years, P-12 schools have made enormous strides in improving access to high-speed connectivity for all students. In 2013, 40 million students were in schools not meeting the 100 kbps per student threshold. By 2017, only 6.5 million students were in schools not meeting this goal—narrowing this gap by 84 percent. From early childhood education through higher education and workforce training, students need access to high-speed internet in order to learn and make the most of their educational experience.
The Draft Order runs counter to our national goal of affordable, high-speed internet for all students. By rolling back the FCC’s current prohibitions against blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, the Draft Order could lead to a tiered and compartmentalized internet, and whose characteristic openness is limited to those students, schools, and institutions who can afford it. Beyond that, the Draft Order threatens to impede innovation that has taken place within the educational sphere, including when it comes to access to high-quality online coursework.
Our nation’s P-12 education system increasingly relies on an open internet to improve equity and access to high-quality content and instruction. Teachers depend on the internet to collaborate with colleagues and to access educational materials from around the globe. Entrepreneurs and educators alike have been able to develop high-quality educational technologies that support state standards and equip schools and teachers to personalize instruction. These technologies, which include educational apps and online coursework, help students learn valuable research and internet safety skills, and expand access to a high-quality education for students with disabilities and English learners. By allowing ISPs to limit access and increase costs, the Draft Order could threaten educational equity and exacerbate the digital divide.
Rural schools could be particularly harmed by the potential effects of the Draft Order. One recent analysis shows that the 77 percent of the schools that lack high-speed fiber connections are in rural communities. Despite the Draft Order’s claim that the Commission’s current rules have stifled investment in internet infrastructure and rural communities, independent studies have found that such investments by ISPs have largely remained stable and in some cases have increased in underserved areas. The Draft Order would neither protect fiscally-strapped schools and school districts from aggressive ISP pricing practices, nor would it guarantee any additional investment in underserved areas.
Institutions of higher education rely on an open internet to carry out both their educational and research missions. For instance, online coursework has grown significantly over the past decade: as of the fall of 2015, more than 6 million students enrolled in at least one online course, representing about 30 percent of enrollments, compared to less than 10 percent in the fall of 2002. 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 competing resource. Additionally, basic research, which today more than ever relies upon frequent exchange of massive data sets online, could be severely impacted by a tiered and tolled internet. The Association of Research Libraries has stated that “if our institutions had to pay a fee in order to access these connections or download these digital files, it wouldn't happen.” Resource-constrained public institutions of higher education, the biggest users of online coursework, which remain funded nearly $9 billion below their per-student levels before the Great Recession, would particularly feel these constraints.
The Draft Order may also disproportionately impact students whose only adequate connection to the internet is the one inside their classroom. Even in 2017, far too many students lack access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection outside their classrooms—at home or off-campus. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center analysis, approximately 5 million households with school-age children did not have high-speed internet at home. This analysis found that households with annual incomes under $50,000 were more than three times as likely to lack a high-speed connection than those with incomes over $50,000; nearly 40 percent of households with annual incomes under $25,000—165 percent of full-time federal minimum wage—did not have a high-speed connection. Coupled with the Commission’s recent modifications to the Lifeline program and proposed changes to the critical Universal Service Fund’s Schools and Libraries Program (“E-Rate”) program, implementation of the Draft Order could further deepen the “digital divide,” effectively limiting or outright denying internet access to the students who need it most.
In summary, we are deeply concerned about the Draft Order’s impact on our nation’s education system. Subsequently, we ask that you delay your planned vote to roll back net neutrality and forever change the landscape of the internet until you can satisfactorily answer the following questions:
- The Draft Order fails to make a single mention of ‘student’ or ‘students’ in its 210 pages; to what extent did the Commission contemplate the Draft Order’s impact on students and the programs, schools, and institutions of higher education that they attend?
- What tangible and enforceable guarantees does the Draft Order provide for schools and institutions of higher education in rural areas, which face substantial barriers to accessing a high-speed internet connection?
- What evidence does the Commission have that the Draft Order will provide superior connectivity over the regulatory regime currently in place?
- How will the Draft Order affect the E-Rate program, including the progress made in such program since the 2014 modernization order?
- Paragraph 256 of the Draft Order “reject[s] the contrary argument ISPs will engage in ‘virtual redlining’ because, as discussed, paid prioritization is likely to lead to increased network investment and lower costs to end users, particularly benefitting those on the wrong side of the digital divide.”
- What steps will the Commission take to ensure that ISPs do not engage in such behavior and that issues associated with the “digital divide” and the “homework gap” are not being actively exacerbated by the regulatory framework envisioned by the Draft Order?
We thank you for your consideration of these pressing issues. We look forward to your swift and detailed response.
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