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Iowa students may lose free Net access

The Iowa State House votes to end free student Internet use at the state's public universities.

The Iowa State House voted to end free student Internet use at the state's public universities.

The bill passed yesterday requires students at the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa, and Iowa State University to pay for Internet access through private companies, rather than receiving free dial-up accounts through the state subsidized Iowa Communications Network (ICN). The measure passed the Iowa State Senate last month in a vote of 35-14 and now only needs to be approved by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.

Without the service, the only way that students who live off campus will be able to surf the Net for free is by using computers at on-campus computer labs. Students will still be able to dial in to check their email, according to Rep. Bob Brunkhorst (R-Waverly) who supported the bill.

As products of the Information Age, many college students have come to think of access to campus computers and the Internet as a natural part of their education.

But universities, and now legislators, faced with budget-cutting and external pressures from private enterprises that want the students' business, are beginning to dispense some harsh lessons in reality by asking students to pay for online access.

Rep. Brunkhorst said that the time had come for the state to stop subsidizing access to the Web. "With ICN, the only people left without free service are the homeless. I would rather see the state providing the content not the service," he said. The state has committed about half a billion dollars on the project.

Brunkhorst thinks that the state should spend the funds to provide content--to help universities mount virtual MBA programs, the government offer job resources and tax information, and schools provide lecture notes and video clips of classes. "The state should be a gateway to the Internet, not a service provider," he said.

But Rep. Rosemary Thomson (R-Cedar Rapids) said that legislators were under pressure from local Internet service providers and phone companies that felt that the free network access was taking away their business.

"The problem is striking a balance between educational and private business interests," she said. "Local carriers can't compete with free."

Thomson said that when in 1989 the ICN bill was passed, it was intended to support distance learning and telemedicine. "The Internet was out there, but it was not even part of the discussion. [ICN] was not designed to compete with the private sector Internet access companies."

Many students are none too pleased. "It is going to piss a lot of students off here who access the Internet from home," said Kevin Doyle, a junior at the University of Iowa. "They are taking something that was free for so long and now making us pay for it."

But at least one student, junior Jackson Brandenburg, thinks the bill was a makes sense. "It's good that it is being passed now, before an even larger portion of students expect free access," he said. "The university is doing its part by providing its student access in all the ITCs. Maybe the state will use some of the excess funds to buy the university some decent machines!"