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Higher Education Not Neutral on Net Neutrality

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The Internet was created in university laboratories as an open platform to promote research and education.

The higher education community appears to oppose changes to network neutrality requlations.

Credit: Shutterstock

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to repeal the 2015 regulations mandating network neutrality (known more familiarly as "net neutrality") at its Dec. 14 meeting, an action the higher education community appears to oppose.

In fact, in official comments filed in August about the proposed order, which the FCC has branded "Restoring Internet Freedom," no fewer than nine organizations representing higher education entities ranging from community colleges to research libraries and public and land-grant colleges reminded the commission the Internet was originally developed by university-based computer science researchers with very specific parameters of openness intended.

"In our initial comments, we noted that the Internet was initially created in university laboratories as an open platform to promote research and education, citing accounts of the founders of the Internet to support this view," the organizations said in their comments. "This history showed the original Internet architecture was created as an open platform that would support any application. The 'Acceptable Use Policy' of the original National Science Foundation Network (NSFNet) was restricted to 'research and education.'"

The groups went on to pointedly remind the commission the National Science Foundation's 1988 report, Toward a National Research Network, "was critical to the development of the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 which supported the creation of a National Research and Education Network (NREN) initiative that became one of the major vehicles for the spread of the Internet beyond the field of computer science to the general public."

Ironically enough, the nature of today's Internet as a fundamental component of modern commercial culture may mean trouble for the very community that gave birth to it: higher education.

In a public post on its website after the FCC released its proposed order, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) voiced strong disapproval of the proposal.

"The FCC's new order would allow some content—from those willing to pay a premium—to be prioritized over other voices, such as nonprofit organizations or people holding minority viewpoints," the ARL said. "Instead of ensuring that users can access the content of their choosing on an equal basis, the FCC will rely solely on market forces."

Many colleges and universities occupy unique positions that underscore the complexity of how the proposed order would affect them, too: the vast majority are non-profit institutions that both produce and consume digital content that might be deemed "non-priority" from a volume or price-per-packet basis, but they also serve as major economic drivers for their communities. They also represent the striving for knowledge and information exchange the order purports to encourage.

While higher education's professional associations continue to lobby for net neutrality as defined in the 2015 order, it has been left to individual university chief information officers (CIOs) to actually prepare for provisioning their networks in the event their Internet Service Providers (ISPs) begin to prioritize traffic (numerous university CIOs did not reply to requests for comment, and one declined, through the university's media office, to speak with Communciations).

Clarkson University, located 30 miles from the Canadian border in Potsdam, NY, may exemplify the complexity of how the state of net neutrality will affect higher education. Clarkson CIO Joshua Fiske said he is confident the university's Internet connections will remain stable, but is not completely comfortable with the situation.

"With the cost-conscious culture we're in today, anything we can do to keep the cost of higher education down is important, so we are making a large move into online and distance education as a mechanism to contain costs for the student," Fiske said. "If a residential ISP decides they have a preferred higher education provider and they will rate-limit everybody else who is doing online video, then we're sunk. That's my primary concern as I think about where we sit in the market today; if an ISP decides they either want to filter or rate-limit our content, they are putting their finger on the scales in terms of fair access or competition."

Fiske said he is confident the university has sufficient capacity—and tight-enough contract language – to ensure the university's connections will remain "net neutral" for the foreseeable future.

As of Jan. 1, 2018, Clarkson will be served by commercial ISP Spectrum and Tier 1 ISP Cogent Communications, each with 2-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) synchronous connections, and New York State's research and education network, NYSERNet, which has a 10-Gbps connection with Clarkson.

The Spectrum and Cogent connections total 4 Gbps in synchronous bandwidth which services the entire campus, shared by approximately 3,500 residential students.

Clarkson's residence halls have 100-megabit-per-second (Mbps) synchronous ethernet connections. Academic buildings are served by wireless networks capable of achieving up to 500 Mbps synchronous, and research-specific labs have 1 Gbps synchronous ethernet service.

Fiske said the Spectrum and Cogent connections are also provided under Dedicated Internet Access agreements, which should offer some buffer against potential rate-limiting or filtering. Though the Spectrum connection is the one he expresses greatest concern about, he added, "We pretty much expect that is unfiltered, and un-rate-limited, up to the 2-gig limit."

Clarkson might also be able to use its NYSERNet connection to provision some popular platforms that could be throttled by a commercial ISP, through NYSERNet's peering agreement with large industry entities such as Google, Netflix, and Amazon Web Services. Fiske said the peering would allow the university to provision popular platforms like Netflix over NYSERNet if necessary. Additionally, bandwidth-intensive research, including collaborative research with other institutions, would likely be unaffected.

"But the other really important part of our mission is public dissemination of information," Fiske said. "It's not just to other higher eds; it's outside the proverbial ivory tower, to folks in their homes in the community. Filtering or rate-limiting would have a big impact in terms of our ability to communicate."

Should the FCC vote overturn the 2015 order, Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University in Elon, NC, said, "It is highly likely that legal action will be initiated by people who oppose the proposed change by the FCC," citing an opinion piece posted to The New York Times by Columbia University policy expert Tim Wu.

How court challenges might play out could also affect near-term budgetary issues for university CIOs trying to provision their networks, should ISPs go ahead with prioritization plans until a final decision is reached by the federal government.

"I would say the folks who don't need to worry about it are the institutions that can afford to pay for paid prioritization," Fiske said, "the folks with the big endowments and deep pockets who can just afford to change their models, change their budgets, and pay higher rates. For an institution like Clarkson, we don't have a huge endowment. We are heavily reliant on tuition as a driver for our annual budget. My concern would be if ISPs start to use the ruling as an excuse for increasing pricing, there's only one place for that cost increase to go, and that's back to the student."

Over the long term, the complex financial and legal structure of much of the Internet backbone might also play a role in assuring the continuation or restoration of net neutrality for college networks. The middle mile fiber serving northern New York, for example, is owned by the Development Authority of the North Country, a quasi-public entity, which built a fiber loop from Syracuse through the region including Clarkson, St. Lawrence University, and the State University of New York Potsdam, to the state capital of Albany and back to Syracuse. New York State incentive funds have also encouraged at least one last-mile ISP to deliver fiber to remote portions of the state's northern tier. However, whether they could or would expand to provide service to Clarkson or other universities and colleges in the region in the event of rate-limiting by those universities' current ISPs is an open question.

"We have some sort of contingency plans in place," Fiske said. "We are under contract for some of these things for a period of time into the future, so it really comes down to the lawyers at that point; if they start throttling or filtering, is that breach of contract based on the language in the contract? Does that get us out? Does that let us pick other options?

"So when I think about what our options are if our upstream ISPs start filtering or rate-limiting, yes, we can shop around and I have no concerns about the middle-mile fiber carrier playing any of those games. But if the ISPs do it, we are still somewhat limited by who's available in Syracuse or Albany."

Gregory Goth is an Oakville, CT-based writer who specializes in science and technology.


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