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Why the FCC's Decisions This Week Matter for Ed Tech

In a city plagued by bureaucratic gridlock, during a week when it looks like we could be running into yet another government shutdown (just the Department of Homeland Security this time, though), it seems that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working double-time in Washington D.C.

Each month the FCC’s five commissioners convene, and tomorrow’s meeting will cover a lot of ground. The Commissionwill be voting on two significant issues—net neutrality and community broadband—both of which have considerable implications for schools and libraries.

In case you’re one of the39 percent of people still in the dark, net neutrality is the idea that all online content should receive equal treatment by Internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Comcast, and not made faster or slower based upon providers’ commercial interests. The bottom line: online content providers like Etsy or Netflix should not have to (or be able to) pay ISPs to have their content reach customers faster.

As New America’s Learning Technologies Projecthas emphasized, this decision is critical for enabling innovation in the burgeoning field of education technology. It’s not hard to imagine an environment where the current dominant companies producing online educational materials could afford to pay ISPs for faster access to customers, leaving behind innovative new start-ups. Under such an arrangement, emerging new content providers would be at an extreme disadvantage. To keep the Internet a level playing field, where new start-ups stand or fall on the merit of their content alone, it’s worth promoting and protecting a strong, open Internet.

To get a bit more technical though, in order to protect net neutrality, the FCC is also considering FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to regulate the Internet like a common carrier (also referred to as Title II reclassification). Currently, telecommunications services—like your phone service—are regulated under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. These services are subject to a number of additional provisions, including a required contribution to the Universal Service Fund (the Fund). The Fund is used to support several programs that extend service to low-income and rural Americans, including the E-rate program.

Chairman Wheeler’s proposalleaves open the possibility that Internet providers could also be required to contribute to the Fund in the future. If so-called “contribution reform” were to happen, the overall size of the Fund would not increase; instead, contributions would be redistributed over a larger base of payers, including both telecommunications and broadband providers.

As if the decision on net neutrality wasn’t enough for one day, the FCC will also consider an order addressing two petitions filed by municipal broadband providers. These providers arelooking to overturn state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that keep them from expanding their service.

Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee have both invested in their own broadband networks and currently provide affordable Internet service to schools, libraries, residents, and other customers within their municipalities. Due to laws passed in each state, however, these community networks are unable to expand service outside their current service areas. Neighboring cities looking to partner with Wilson or Chattanooga are effectively blocked from providing this service option to their communities, an option that in many cases would be less expensive and of higher quality than what they currently can access through private providers.

Municipal broadband networks are an important option for communities looking to increase access to high-speed broadband, and laws like these—which exist innearly twenty states—are a huge barrier to increasing access.

Tomorrow, the FCC is poised to both uphold the principle of net neutrality and allow municipalities to invest in their own broadband infrastructure. In a city full of dysfunction, tomorrow could be a really good day."