internetSince June, President Obama has been pushing to get the nation’s schools connected to high-speed broadband Internet with an initiative called ConnectED.

As the White House puts it, “Unfortunately, the average  school has about the same connectivity as the average American home, but serves 200 times as many users, and fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school’s internet connection meets their teaching needs.”

Slow connectivity limits students’ usage of digital textbooks, online learning programs, web research, and other Internet-related teaching methods.

Earlier this month, the President announced added financial heft to the program: $2 billion in federal funding to upgrade 15,000 schools to high speed Internet, plus $750 million in donations of technology, educational content, and Internet services from seven companies — Apple, AT&T, Autodesk, Microsoft, O’Reilly Media, Sprint, and Verizon.

The announcement came just three weeks after a federal court struck down Net Neutrality, ruling that Internet Service Providers — like Comcast and Time Warner — don’t have to treat all websites on the Internet equally. (For an entertaining one minute Net Neutrality video, click here). Depending on how Net Neutrality plays out, the consequences of unequal website speeds could counteract some benefits of the ConnectED initiative.

The dissolution of Net Neutrality has kickstarted a debate on the implications. Theoretically, ISPs could slow down websites like Netflix or Hulu unless these companies pay for faster speeds. That cost, in turn, could be passed down to customers. It would essentially turn the Internet — a socialist platform, where all websites are created equal and viewers can access them equally — to a capitalist platform where the biggest buck buys better service.

Of course, we don’t know that this will happen, and no ISPs have come out and said they’ll fleece websites for faster connectivity. Rumors swirl around Comcast slowing down Netflix, but both companies have denied it. However, with ISPs declassified as common carriers, they could, if they wanted, charge for faster connections.

This has implications for a range of sectors, none more than education. Students conducting research for papers or homework could experience varying access to sources. Think about it. Academic websites, non-profits, libraries, some MOOC providers. These aren’t big corporations with big bucks. The result could be class lecture videos streamed from a local community college running slower, but videos from for-profit organizations that pay up, like Coursera, streaming fast. Perhaps schools can’t afford to move their documents and infrastructure to the cloud, because they can’t afford a fast connection.

ConnectED’s purpose is to democratize educational Internet speeds so that students have equal access to online resources. Net Neutrality’s dissolution, however, could hobble it.

The government giveth, and then corporations — and the courts — taketh away.

[image via thinkstock]