January 30, 2014

Thank you to Mike Abbiatti from the Southern Regional Education Board for giving us his take on Net Neutrality. Recently a federal court in the U.S. struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s right to enforce net neutrality regulations because the internet service providers are not “common carriers.”
Russ Poulin

During a recent holiday visit to one of our ten grandchildren, my wife and I took a side trip to tour the King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas.  The sheer enormity of the ranch and the tour guide’s information re: the growth of the ranch over the decades made me think of an interesting parallel between the range wars associated with the growth of the wild west economy during the 19th Century, and the range wars we experience today with the growth of the digital frontier in the 21st Century.

Cowboy on the Range
Is the current Net Neutrality battle reminiscent of the range wars of the old West?

The core messages to be remembered from reading this article are:

1)     there is significant potential impact of Net Neutrality on education, and

2)     we must end the continuous feud between the education community and commercial Internet providers i.e. the “Range War” over who should provide affordable bandwidth to schools.



19th Century

21st Century

Antagonists Cattle BaronsversusSheep herders/farmers Commercial Internet Providers (CISP)versusPublic academic networks (PAN)
Enabling federal action Homestead Act of 1862  (among others)  Net Neutrality (NN) FCC ruling passed  2012/ struck down 2014:CISP against NNPAN for NN
Contested Grazing land, water, fences. Bandwidth, Commodity Internet,  Regulations
War chest Bottomless None
Hired guns Armed private army
versus Loose confederation of sheepherders and farmers
Army of well-funded lobbyistsversusLoose confederation of academics
Expected outcomes Increase profit margin, control the marketversusSubsistence Increased profit margin and control of the MarketversusIncreased graduation rates, expanded education for all

Table 1.  Visual representation of a comparison of 19th Century geographical range wars and the 21st Century digital range wars.

Working Together Everyone Can Win
Reinstating Net Neutrality will ensure that the Internet will remain “open” and “free”.  An open Internet combined with peering (collaboration) like an open grazing range enables innovation. In turn, well-managed innovation lowers production costs, which lowers prices. In turn, lower prices increase spending; increased spending grows businesses and academic progress.  The take-home is that public/private partnerships can be productive for both sides of the arrangement. It is within the realm of possibility that ending the range wars of the 19th Century actually assisted in setting the prices of beef, mutton, and crops! The bottom line is that no one has to lose for everyone to win. The author is neither a Pollyanna nor a political novice when making the statement in the last sentence.

The seemingly naive position taken in the previous paragraph is supported by the following facts:

FACT: Bandwidth is the currency of education in the Digital Age.

FACT: Technology moves from the home to the classroom continuosly in the Digital Age.

FACT: Affordable and sustainable bandwidth from the commercial providers is difficult to find.

FACT: State-owned Research and Education (R&E) networks provide affordable and sustainable bandwidth to many K-20 schools.

FACT: Successful public/private collaboration in the realm of bandwidth and Internet connectivity is rare.

FACT: Commercial providers spend significant amounts of money lobbying against Research and Education Networks in Washington, DC as well as in state legislatures. The goal is to try and make public networks “go away” based upon fears of lost revenue from E-rate, and state monies dedicated to purchasing bandwidth for schools, as well as a perceived inevitable mission creep resulting in R&E networks providing Internet services to homes and businesses. Hence the  “Range war” analogy (refer to table 1 above).

FACT: If we don’t end the “range war”, then we will continue to make promises to students, teachers, parents, legislators, and the general public about the wonders of digital resources only to face the reality that we can’t afford the bandwidth to use the resources (i.e. online testing, BYOD, IP video, etc.)

What steps can we take?
So, what can we digital sheep ranchers/farmers do to assure that the range wars of the 21st Century will cease and not reappear? Five concrete actions will keep the range open, and ensure affordability, sustainability, and return on investment for everyone concerned.

1.      Develop scalable and sustainable Bandwidth Strategies that guide bandwidth purchases based upon actual need versus simply buying what you can afford and doing the best you can. (i.e. a state version of the National Broadband Plan).
2.     Leverage all funding opportunities in comprehensive broadband planning. (i.e. E-rate, Connect Ed, Healthcare Connect, Connect America,) as well as targeted state investments.
3.    Leverage Research and Education Network infrastructure and demand aggregation purchasing to secure low prices for bandwidth.
4.      Engage commercial providers in a realistic dialog that will focus on return on investment (ROI) for both public and private partners. Create a win-win environment through Cooperative Endeavor Agreements based in reality and shared resources versus emotion-based confrontation and expensive lobbying of decision-makers.
5.      Actively pursue sustainable strategies to enable shared digital resources initiatives with K-20 colleagues locally, regionally, and nationally in order to maximize bandwidth utilization and to reduce duplication of investments for common tools.

In summary, there are interesting parallels between the 19th century range wars and the contention over bandwidth we see in the 21st Century.  Cattle barons no longer battle sheepherders or farmers for land and water, but we experience more civilized (but no less intense) open conflict between existing/evolving public Research and Education networks and commercial providers of Internet connectivity to schools. Careful consideration should be given to raising a bilateral flag of truce while cooperative endeavor agreements are crafted in order to create a win for our students. Putting an end to the 21st Century range war will empower our students to access the vast opportunity that resides in the modern “digital King Ranch”.

After all, the most important aspect of any technology initiative is not the technology itself, but what one DOES with the technology.    Photo of Mike Abbiatti.

Mike Abbiatti
Director, Educational Technology Cooperative
Southern Regional Education Board

Photo credit:  Morgue File.

2 replies on “Net Neutrality, Classroom Reality, and Ending the “Range War””

No metaphors used to date as raised the proper level of ire among the populace, most of whom don’t have to yet earn a 21st century livlihood. I’ve had some luck reviving the old highway metaphor talking about the Information Super Toll Road:

“Suppose you get up tomorrow morning and find that the government has given all the roads in your town to private companies. At the foot of your driveway is a toll booth. The speed you are allowed to drive and the weight of what you’re allowed to carry in your vehicle is based on how much you are willing and able to pay. Regardless, the top speed you can drive is less that 1 mph, thought other developed countries continue to operate their roads as we do now. (Oh, and your mother who lives outside of town has no road at all, The law doesn’t require it and it would cost the company more to build and maintain some way to get to your mom than they’re willing to spend. Sorry about that.)

So, what would be impact on your life and livelihood?

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