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Should free broadband be neutral?

A lot of politicians are bandying about the idea of licensing unused or underutilized radio frequencies to create a free, nationwide broadband network. As the US gets repeatedly dinged for a lack of broadband penetration, especially in the inner city and rural areas, an initiative like this would have massive implications for educational technology.
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A lot of politicians are bandying about the idea of licensing unused or underutilized radio frequencies to create a free, nationwide broadband network. As the US gets repeatedly dinged for a lack of broadband penetration, especially in the inner city and rural areas, an initiative like this would have massive implications for educational technology.

Not only could we more reasonably assume Internet access at home for our students, but could better leverage 1:1 initiatives and very cheaply provide access in schools struggling with infrastructure development. Not surprisingly, a lot of people think this is a pretty good idea. A number of business models are also floating around that suggest that this could be run privately and even potentially generate revenue.

That, however, is where the agreement ends and a serious controversy begins. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would like the private companies providing this service to filter content and provide a "smut-free" Internet. This is no small task since a pretty sizable chunk of the Web is, in fact, smut (or somewhat smutty, or potentially objectionable, or maybe offensive to somebody).

Ars Technica featured an article on two key Republicans who advocate for neutrality in this free broadband network. The conservative politicians oppose the filtering not because they want kids to have access to pornography, but because they believe that it will hinder private enterprise from taking up this initiative and offering service on this spectrum.

"It seems to us that your proposed auction conditions are going to discourage certain parties from bidding," ranking Energy Committee members Joe Barton (R-TX) and Cliff Stearns (R-FL) wrote to the Commission Chair on the last day of June. "Our understanding is that there are more than 40 small, medium, and large carriers that would be interested in bidding on the spectrum if it didn't have the service conditions."

Just what constitutes smut and/or lacks educational value obviously differs by region in the United States. Plenty of hardware and software solutions (some of them free, like dansguardian) exist, allowing parents and educators to make content decisions on a local level. Give our kids and schools broadband as soon as possible, folks, but keep it neutral. I'm not going to stop monitoring my kids' web access just because it's free.

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