Make Net Neutrality a Net Win for Students and Rural Communities


This piece originally appeared with Education Post in 2015.

There is one thing we know for certain about net neutrality: it’s a quagmire of conspiracy theories, accusations and picking sides. But if we don’t figure out a way to get beyond entrenched positions and resolve this issue, we will never achieve equitable broadband access for residents—especially schoolchildren who need to compete in this technology-driven economy.

The only ones that will benefit from this infighting are the high-priced lawyers who continue to lick their chops over years of legal battles.

Regardless of the position you may take on the issue, the one thing we must do to have the best solution for this country is to do as the name suggests—work together to neutralize the political rhetoric.

From my perspective, I see this through two lenses: What does net neutrality mean for rural America, and what does it mean for education?

I have lived in smaller cities and towns most of my life and have watched many of them struggle to pay off huge debts incurred by municipally owned utility services, forcing residents to pay higher rates than residents in larger neighboring communities.

We now face, with broadband access, a challenge similar to what rural communities confronted more than 80 years ago with electricity. Internet is a critical part of business, education, healthcare, and life in general, so we must identify avenues for our small communities to get connected and not be left behind in this technology-based economy. But we must also make certain they are not saddled with tremendous debts.

This desire to help smaller towns, coupled with my personal and professional passion to improve our schools and help kids be successful, led to North Carolina’s innovative education broadband efforts.

While I was governor and lieutenant governor of North Carolina, our state faced significant roadblocks in ensuring all our schools had equal access to quality broadband services, regardless of whether they were rural or urban, wealthy or poor. To find a collaborative solution to broadband access and affordability, we brought in many of the same players involved in today’s discussions around net neutrality—politicians, government, private providers, nonprofits and consumers.

With one overriding goal in mind, we collaboratively checked our historical positions at the door and worked together to challenge the status quo and create a successful statewide broadband network. The network provides access for all of North Carolina’s education platforms, starting in K-12 schools and continuing on through college and ongoing job training.

This keeps state costs manageable and quality of service to the users high. It creates economies of scale with shared services and increased the customer base for private providers in rural and hard-to-serve areas. We created win-wins for the stakeholders, not an environment of who will win. This effort for infrastructure has been sustained through three different administrations, including a state legislature that changed party leadership.

As long as the net neutrality issue continues to be polarizing, we might as well set the washing machine on spin cycle and watch the political rhetoric go round-and-round.

If Washington, state governments, and the private and non-profit sectors can forego the win-lose mentality—and strike a chord of collaboration that at the end of the day provides access and affordable broadband to every child and rural community—that is a net win for America.

Photo by Joseph Gruber, CC-Licensed.

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