A large, mostly rural state with a small population, Montana is not often cited as a technology leader. But when thinking about the effects of instituting—or repealing—laws and regulations requiring “net neutrality” and how net neutrality and eLearning intersect, Montana is a perfect case study. Pioneers in eLearning and distance education, Montana’s residents and government understand the importance of net neutrality; Montana was the first state to take meaningful action in response to the FCC announcement that it was repealing net neutrality regulations.

Montana’s students have benefited from distance learning since well before the internet age. Big Sky Telegraph, which was based at Western Montana College of the University of Montana, connected rural Montana schools in 1989, enabling scores of one-room schools to offer their students online courses in foreign languages, advanced mathematics, and other subjects that the local instructors could not teach. The network provided modems and computers to teachers, instructed them on how to use this new technology—and connected schools and students until widespread internet availability rendered its services obsolete. Now, rural telecoms and internet providers across Montana connect schools, libraries, hospitals, and other critical facilities to a statewide fiber backbone to offer reliable high-speed internet access.

But being able to connect to the internet isn’t enough. Schools, universities, hospitals, telecommuters—Montana has the highest proportion in the nation—elected officials, and business people all need access to content. “For as long as you, or I, or anyone in this room has used the internet, we’ve had certain expectations about how things work. We’ve had access to a free and open internet. But a free and open internet is no longer guaranteed. The loss of internet neutrality principles threatens the future of the students standing in this very room,” Montana Governor Steve Bullock said on January 22, 2018, in a speech delivered at the same high school he attended. That’s the day he signed a law requiring state agencies to procure internet services only from companies that “adhere to internet neutrality principles.”

The reasons Bullock listed—and included in the text of the law—apply to anyone engaged in eLearning and eCommerce. They include:

  • Free and open exchange of information is essential to social, commercial, and civic life
  • Citizens rely on a free and open internet to learn and make informed choices
  • Businesses rely on free and open internet to enter markets, to recruit and train employees, to compete, and to grow
  • Educational institutions rely on free and open internet “to provide Montanans with world-class educational opportunities”

Understanding net neutrality

“Net neutrality” refers to the principles that the internet should be open to all content and that service providers should be required to treat all content equally. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working to change regulation of how internet service providers handle content flowing over the internet.

In 2015, the FCC implemented the so-called Net Neutrality policy, which classified broadband providers as “common carriers”—companies providing public telecommunications services—rather than “information providers.” This change meant that the providers had to treat all content the same, regardless of where the content came from or who owned it. It’s similar to requiring that a mail carrier deliver letters from anyone who wants to send them, even if the mail carrier disagrees with the sender’s viewpoint. It also required providers to charge all customers the same price for the same service. That means that your internet service couldn’t charge you more to receive streaming video through Hulu than it charged you to receive Netflix video, or block or slow delivery of content owned by a competitor.

The rationale for classifying internet service as more of a utility than an information service was that everyone should have—needs to have—unfettered access to information on the internet, just as all potential customers in a city have equal access to electricity or taxi cabs (utility companies and taxi companies are also considered common carriers).

The argument against considering internet providers to be common carriers is that they are businesses, and, as such, they are harmed by the regulations, which limit their potential for growth. Some claim that service providers’ investment in broadband infrastructure has dropped since net neutrality was implemented, though that claim is widely challenged. Others argue that internet providers won’t make business decisions that harm consumers, since those consumers are their customers.

In late 2017, the FCC announced that it was dismantling the 2015 net neutrality rules—and prohibiting state governments from passing their own net neutrality rules. This would mean that a carrier, such as Verizon, Comcast, or ATT, could charge more for some types of content, block some content, or slow down or speed up delivery of some content.

Opposition to this decision is widespread, and the FCC repeal of net neutrality rules is likely to be tied up in legal fights for some time. Montana’s Bullock and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have signed legislation that requires all state contractors to adhere to net neutrality. This addresses the problem in a way that they believe does not clash with the ban on state net neutrality laws—and throws the weight of a significant consumer of internet services, state agencies, behind support for net neutrality principles. These governors are gambling that internet providers won’t want to be locked out of state contracts. Other states, including California, are taking on the FCC more directly by passing state net neutrality laws in defiance of the FCC ban.

Net neutrality and eLearning

The battle over net neutrality affects nearly everyone: state legislators, consumers, businesses—and educators and learners. Many K-12 educators rely on web-based content; higher education has moved significant content to distance education via MOOCs, asynchronous courses, and more. Corporate eLearning is replete with virtual classrooms, webinars, conference calls, and web-based content that learners access individually and asynchronously. In addition, much learning occurs on social media and informal networking sites.

The repeal of net neutrality could hinder eLearning that relies on speedy delivery of streaming video content, for example. Or it could affect what content people can access: One fear is that, if they are allowed to, internet service providers will reduce access to content they don’t own by blocking or slowing (called “throttling”) delivery of content owned by competitors, or content from providers that cannot or will not pay premium prices for speedy delivery to schools, companies, or individual subscribers.

Startups, small businesses, and individuals lack the clout (and the capital) to pay extra for faster delivery of their content, so net neutrality fans worry that the internet will become the playground of a few large, wealthy content providers, squeezing out innovation as access is reduced.

An additional area of concern is privacy. If internet service providers are segregating content by type or by who owns it—in order to route it through fast or slow channels—they’re also looking more closely at which content is going where. The concern is that this added scrutiny could result in providers blocking competing content providers, including social media platforms owned by competitors. They could block tools that interfere with their business interests or infuse educational content—and the pupils using it—with tracking, advertising, or other unwelcome intrusions. 

A developing story

The old net neutrality rules are still in effect as the FCC’s repeal works its way through various bureaucratic processes—and faces legal challenges. Learners and eLearning developers alike should keep an eye on this developing issue, armed with an understanding of how net neutrality and eLearning intersect.