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Net neutrality rollback tests mettle of small and low-income schools

Internet service providers now have more control over the online content Americans see. Schools could offer a model for coping with the anticipated changes. 

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A third-grade student at Meeker Elementary School in Greeley, Colo., uses a computer during a math class. The end of net neutrality June 11 means some schools could see changes in their internet access unless they negotiate better deals with service providers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Bringing the internet to the remote Mohawk Trail Regional School District in Western Massachusetts has been an ongoing battle. The district spans about 250 mostly forested square miles, and local schools only secured broadband three years ago. Even so, educators have already used the new connection to reshape their teaching and content.

“There's all kinds of educational information that is being resourced through the internet now... There are teachers who have established relationships [through Skype] with other classes both within the Western Massachusetts area and as far away as Vietnam,” says Michael Buoniconti, the district's superintendent and founder of the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition.

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“If you were to take away the internet right now, I think that it would cripple what we're trying to do here,” he says.

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Despite a successful Senate vote to challenge its repeal, net neutrality officially ends as a federal regulation on Monday. In response, educators from rural and low-income schools – most of whom have only recently secured reliable broadband access – are now strategizing how to prevent unreliably slow internet connections and heightened costs. For many of these schools, the answer lies in sharpening their negotiating skills with providers and banding together in larger networks.

“We are saying to [school districts] over the longer term, you need to have a plan in place to ensure that your teachers and students aren't disadvantaged by this and... part of that plan has to be... being strategic about the broadband agreement that you're entering as a school district,” says Reg Leichty, a founder and partner at Foresight Law and Policy and an advisor to the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN).

Without net neutrality – which broadly ensures that internet providers offer the same quality service to users regardless of what sites they access online – school districts could see higher prices and slowdowns for some sites, particularly those that aren’t supported by major companies like Netflix or Google, analysts say.

Vulnerable schools need a plan 

Much of the initial discussion last December – after the decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to repeal net neutrality – centered around the vulnerability of certain schools, says Ron Reyer, the director of technology for the Bethel Park School District in Pennsylvania.

“People were more worried about this when it comes to small and rural schools where the choice of providers is not nearly as wide,” says Mr. Reyer.

In the 2013-2014 school year, 7,156 or about 53 percent of public school districts were located in rural areas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The NCES defines rural locations as at least 2.5 miles from an urban cluster and 5 miles from any urbanized area. In the fall of 2013, 9,132,607 or about 18 percent of students enrolled in public elementary, middle, and secondary schools attended rural districts.

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When Reyer first heard about the FCC’s decision, he thought back to 2015 when his district and a network of others in the area successfully negotiated for net neutrality in a contract with their internet provider – months before the policy was first introduced federally. More recently, he took action, and published a series of tips through the CoSN that directed school districts to try similar approaches.

That guidance will help some districts. In Western Massachusetts, despite their improved internet access, Superintendent Buoniconti’s schools are under severe financial strain. Budget cuts are an annual occurrence, he says, and the district’s enrollment has shrunk by 40 percent in the past 15 years – in part because the recent broadband expansion in schools hasn’t yet extended to many households.

Families have moved out of town because their children couldn’t access the internet outside of school to do homework, says Kimberly Longey, a local resident and chief operating officer of Free Press, an open internet advocacy nonprofit. And with analysts expecting the repeal of net neutrality to raise costs for service, schools in these small Massachusetts towns could struggle.

“Our school systems are cash-strapped already. If they have to pay a premium to access content to provide even just a basic educational environment, never mind trying to strive for excellence ... that content is very likely to go,” says Ms. Longey.

Other possible impacts

Price hikes aren’t the only possible outcome of repealing net neutrality, says Mr. Leichty, the CoSN advisor. Providers could create a so-called “two-lane” internet system in which companies that can afford to pay higher fees can receive faster service. The result could be comparably snail-paced loading speeds for some crucial online educational platforms – including videoconferencing and digital testing – that don’t have substantial financial backing.

Those losses of online resources are exactly what Reyer has been working to prevent. He and other school administrators have encouraged schools to include stipulations for a free and open internet environment directly into contract agreements with providers.

“By default [rural school districts] have less negotiating power because they have less choice. But that doesn't mean that they can't ask their vendor to review and sign off on some kind of a net neutrality document,” he says.

Teamwork is key

But for Reyer’s school district, successfully negotiating with internet providers also required teamwork. His mid-sized suburban district joined forces with several others in the area to form a coalition called an “Intermediate Unit” – a name specific to Pennsylvania – that could collectively bargain like a union.

The full effects of ending net neutrality won’t become clear until weeks, or months after June 11, says Leichty, and two state legislatures – Washington and Oregon – have already instituted their own net neutrality measures in place of the national regulations. But should network inequities threaten Buoniconti’s districts, he is committed to working with other vulnerable schools to fight for a solution together. Successfully lobbying for broadband through the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition was just the first step toward securing equal, accessible internet in the region.

“The point of my stepping forward in this is that I recognized that we couldn't fix ourselves,” he says. “This is something that we need: collaboration, teamwork, and support from the larger community.”