Nichole Williams needed a career reboot. After more than a decade as a web designer in Atlanta, she felt her career was moving backward. She knew she needed to expand her programming skills to stay relevant in the field, so she signed up for Thinkful, an online-education startup that pairs students with one-on-one mentors who work with them over video-chat connections to help them learn to code.
Video plays a growing role in the education of students like Williams who turn to videoconferencing, streaming lectures, and other forms of high-tech distance learning to complete or extend their educations. But the looming end of net neutrality could make life harder, or at least more expensive, for such students.
On Thursday, the FCC will vote on a plan to throw out rules against blocking or discriminating against lawful content. Republicans outnumber Democrats 3 to 2 on the commission, so barring a last-minute change of heart, the plan will likely pass.
Net neutrality advocates have long worried that without strong protections, broadband providers would divide content into so-called “fast lanes” and “slow lanes,” and charge either consumers or content providers extra fees to break out of the slow lanes. That could make videoconferencing, streaming lecture videos, or more experimental forms of distance learning less accessible.
The broadband industry downplays the possibility of fast lanes. But education providers already face uneven treatment on many mobile services. For example, AT&T allows users to watch streams from DirecTV Now that don’t count against their data caps. But watching lecture videos does count against those caps. Net neutrality advocates worry that situation will only get worse if the FCC repeals its rules.
“Killing net neutrality will throw us back to the Dark Ages,” says Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver. “And the people that is likely to hurt most are actually rural populations that don’t have face-to-face access to things like nursing programs.”
Even people like Williams, who live in or near big cities, benefit from the rise of internet video in education. Williams tried unsuccessfully for years to find mentors in Atlanta, until she found Thinkful. “It’s better than meeting someone in person,” she says. “I don’t have to get out in Atlanta traffic, I don’t have to pay to park.”
Without video, students could still work with teachers or mentors over email or text-based chat applications that use less bandwidth. But video provides cues that are lost in text-based communications. “Sometimes my mentor will say ‘I can read your face, I can tell you’re not quite with me, what’s your question?’ ” Williams says.
Today, many video-chat services are peer-to-peer and effectively free; the video stream of your face goes straight to the computer or phone of the person you’re talking with, without moving through a server in the cloud. Slow lanes could change the economics of peer-to-peer interactions. Even if an app maker or school wanted to pay for fast-lane access, they might not be able to, because there’s no single server for broadband providers to white list. As Caulfield put it in an essay in 2014: “So while Hulu will be able in 10 years to deliver multi-terabyte holographic versions of The Good Wife to your living room, the peer-to-peer video your campus is using will remain rooted in 2014, always on the verge of not sucking, but never quite making it to the next level.”
It’s not just video that might end up in the slow lane. Caulfield notes that many colleges are trying to reduce the number of on-campus computer labs they must maintain by moving some instructional software to the cloud. Slow lanes could make these applications too slow to use effectively. Science or programming courses might require students to download large data sets that, if relegated to a slow lane, would take a prohibitive amount of time to download, or could help burn through data caps.
Most major internet service providers say they won’t block or discriminate against lawful content even if the FCC lifts its rules. But their promises leave some ambiguity. Comcast, for example, recently dropped a promise not to offer “paid prioritization” (the technical name for fast lanes) from its website, though spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice has said the company has no plans to offer paid prioritization. In a blog post last year, Verizon lawyer Craig Silliman wrote that the company wouldn’t engage in blocking or paid prioritization; but the company already blocks mobile subscribers from accessing high-resolution video streams unless they upgrade to more expensive plans.
Online-education entrepreneurs aren’t reassured by the broadband industry’s promises. “I’m worried we could end up with a terrible experience for students and consumers,” says Ryan Carson, CEO of the video-based programming and technology tutorial site Treehouse.
Carson says that whether the company can or will shell out for fast lane access will depend on what those offerings look like. But he says that if fast lanes ever became a real issue, the company would probably have to pass the expenses on to students. “It’s probably not something we could fund sustainably with venture capital money,” he says.
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