Net Neutrality: Is it the Real Problem?

There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about Net Neutrality, and it is a very serious topic.  It’s gotten a little bit more headway with Obama’s recent appointments to the FCC, but it still remains an issue of great contention.  However, as concerned as I am with Net Neutrality, I’m far more concerned with Technology Neutrality.  In some ways, disputing over multi-tiered Internet service is putting the cart before the horse, because the debate relies on an argument that states the impoverished actually have the technological means to access the Internet.

A couple of nights ago I was extremely privileged to be invited to a school in our district to speak to parents about the pitfalls, dangers, and possibilities of buying a computer during this economic crisis.  When I sat down with their principal to discuss the specifics of what we’d cover, we both came to the conclusion that we would probably be unable to get them the absolutely best deal on a computer, because of two barriers in their way: Internet access and credit.

Now, it is unfair to make assumptions about all residents of a neighborhood based simply on the majority, but if we are standing in front of a cross-section of our community, it is important to be aware of, and sensitive to the fact that they may not have as much of an opportunity to jump on TigerDirect.com to find the latest steal.

After much research through papers and on-line (but in-store applicable) deals, we were able to locate a couple of sub-$500 laptops with quite good specs that they could purchase.  But, as I stood there that night, explaining how $399 was a great deal for a Compaq 2GB, 2.4Ghz AMD Dual Core, 160GB computer, I realized something: $399 is a LOT of money.  And, I didn’t come to that realization based on some objective concept of how much $399 is; I came to the realization as I looked at their eyes when I proudly displayed this fantastic bargain on the screen, smiling in satisfaction that we had — in fact — found a deal that does compare very well to the on-line deals we thought we could not get them.

I finished up with some other tips: think about the extended warranty (it’s commission to most employees, so they’ll push it), don’t buy Office (we will provide them with Open Office), don’t buy extra batteries, etc.  But, as I went through the script I had constructed, I desperately wanted to say what I knew I couldn’t: “I know $399 is a lot of money; but, trust me, if your child does not have a computer at home, they will instantly fall behind those who do, giving them an educational disadvantage, at the age of 9, that will follow them their entire lives.”

And that’s where my frustration starts with how much we rely on technology.  Because we pin all our future endeavors on the Internet (web2.0, 3.0, or whatever the next trend might be), we immediately create a new Class War in which those who have access will prevail, and those who don’t will struggle.

I applaud my district, who pours so many resources and time into getting the latest, most effective (see previous post “Our Students Are Not Beta Testers“) into the hands of children who may not have a computer, or even their own room; or, in some cases, I’ve seen as I visited my past students, no electricity.

So, when the Obama-appointed FCC starts talking about Net Neutrality, and ensuring that everyone gets the same Internet at the same time, it’s hard to imagine whether that will solve the bigger problem.  Recently, it’s been stated that Internet Access is a utility like water and gas.  If that’s so, will it become another phantom cable in the homes of those who can’t afford to turn it on (like electricity), or the equipment necessary to make use of it (like a phone)?

We’ve made great strides in ensuring that not just the rich can earn a college education (thank you G.I. Bill).  But, does the Internet — and technology in general — take us two steps back?  Have we put so much emphasis and faith in a method of information delivery that can cost a family thousands of dollars a year?

I used to teach at a school called Horace Mann, and though there were many reasons to be proud of that school, I was mostly proud to have our name symbolize something that I’ve believed in (and knew I wanted to be a part of since I was 8): the right to a free education and equal access to information.  In some ways, the great Information boom of our generation has stolen that equal access from a subset of our society that needed it more than anyone else.

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