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Science & Technology

How Repealing Net Neutrality Could Affect Schools' Internet Access


On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to repeal net neutrality regulations. These are the regulations put in place by President Obama to stop broadband companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from blocking or slowing down what their customers want to access online and charging extra for certain things. There are a lot of critics of this, people who worry about what could happen if these regulations go away. One of them is Richard Culatta. He's the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, and he worries about what could happen in schools.

Welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: So just explain this a little bit, if you could. How would a repeal of net neutrality affect, say, my daughter's public school?

CULATTA: Yeah, so one of the key elements of the Internet is that it provides immediate access to a huge range of high-quality resources that are really useful for teachers, whether it's videos of science concepts, simulations - could be source materials and images from a Smithsonian gallery. Now, because it's free and because we aren't charging students sitting in a class to see those great resources, they don't really provide any financial incentive for the carriers to provide those at a higher speed. Now, with net neutrality, of course, that was not an issue. But when carriers can choose to prioritize paid content over freely available content, schools really are at risk.

MCEVERS: How worried are you that this is really going to affect schools as of Thursday?

CULATTA: Well, I think the piece to realize is that Thursday or Friday, we're not going to see much of a difference, right? But over time, I actually am very worried. And I think we all should be worried about this because the types of materials that students, teachers are looking for don't help the bottom line of Internet providers.

MCEVERS: And you used to be a teacher, right?


MCEVERS: Yeah. I just wondered if you could, like, give us an example of, say, a lesson plan, you know, that would rely on good access to the Internet that might be harder for a teacher to do without net neutrality.

CULATTA: Sure. There's a school in Chattanooga - I was visiting Chattanooga recently, and there's a school there where the students in the science class have access to a scanning electron microscope. Scanning electron microscopes are very expensive. The school actually can't afford their own, but because you can control a scanning electron microscope digitally - University of Southern California has put a hi-def camera on top of their scanning electron microscope. And so the students can control...


CULATTA: ...And do these experiments from Chattanooga, where they would not have access otherwise. Well, all that worked because they have access to high-speed Internet connections. As soon as that gets throttled back, access to those students to conduct those experiments is gone. And this is the whole point of what's so scary about this - is, for years, schools that could afford to have high-quality resources, that could afford to have experts brought in, that could afford to have expert teachers in a whole variety of areas were always ahead. Students in those schools are always ahead.

And the Internet, for the first time, leveled that playing field because it didn't matter if you were in a wealthy school or an under-resourced school. And as soon as that goes away, we're back to where we were before, where students are getting shortchanged based on the zip code they live in or, you know, the socioeconomic status of their community because they aren't able to pay for those resources again.

MCEVERS: Have broadband companies responded to your criticism, to what you're saying?

CULATTA: You know, generally, the response is, don't worry, don't worry; we're, you know - we're not going to do anything. But the catch at the end of the day is, who are those companies answering to, right? They're not answering to my kids' teacher in their school. They're answering to shareholders.

MCEVERS: Richard Culatta, thank you so much.

CULATTA: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Richard Culatta is CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, and he led the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology during the Obama administration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.