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Internet

U.K. charging more for foreign access

In a controversial move, administrators of network access for U.K. universities are charging extra for access to sites hosted overseas.

The British are coming--and they're paying extra for it.

In a move that critics call antithetical to the global nature of the Internet, the groups that administer network usages for universities in the United Kingdom have begun charging extra for access to sites hosted overseas--and even for receiving transatlantic email.

Instituted this summer, the new policy is an attempt to pay for and possibly curb soaring transatlantic bandwidth demands.

The high cost of Internet access is a sore point for Internet consumers throughout Europe. Local phone calls are billed by the minute in Europe, making impossible the type of flat-rate fee structure that has made cheap Internet access the norm in the United States. As a result, Internet growth has stalled there: Online retail revenue in Europe will be 3 percent of what it will be in the United States in 1998, according to Forrester Research.

Protests against Europe's high rates have flared up. In Germany, for instance, Web sites yesterday pulled content from the Net and users did not log on in a one-day boycott. A widespread denial-of-service attack, in which users flooded the state telco with server requests, was launched in Spain earlier this year to protest access costs.

In England, the Joint Information Systems Committee said in a memo that the policy would motivate users to curb their own transatlantic surfing. JISC is a government-funded organization that, along with the United Kingdom Education & Research Networking Association, oversees the nation's network infrastructure for institutions of higher education.

"Institutions have now had the opportunities to explore the advantages of the global Internet, and they are in a position to make judgments about its value to them," wrote Ron Rogerson, secretary with the JISC advisory committee on networking. "The Funding Councils consider it no longer appropriate to provide central funds to provide 100 percent funding for what appears to be an unlimited demand for networking service, particularly when that service is provided free, with no incentive to the end users to apply economies in its use."

Transatlantic traffic includes "almost all overseas destinations outside Europe," according to the JISC.

Users may find it difficult to determine when they're surfing overseas, however. Some of the transatlantic traffic originates in Europe, according to the memo, and a small fraction originates from within the United Kingdom.

Adding to potential confusion is the fact that some sites bearing ".uk" domains, such as Amazon.com's recently launched Amazon.co.uk, are hosted overseas.

Universities, and in some cases their individual departments, now are charged the equivalent of about 3 cents per megabyte of traffic that originates on the other side of the Atlantic. For the University of Liverpool, with 15,000 registered users, that adds up to about $70 per day.

Email coming from overseas also costs extra, but it accounts for only a tiny proportion of the total traffic. The JISC has promised to consider appeals of bills incurred by influxes of unsolicited email, or spam.

All traffic between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. is free.

European analysts said the practice of charging for incoming overseas Internet traffic is virtually without precedent.

"It certainly bucks the trend of how content is priced," said Joe Sawyer, analyst with Forrester Research's European new media strategies group in the Netherlands. "Users sort information based on its relevance to them. Even if the [UKERNA] doesn't have the same goals as a commercial ISP in terms of providing customer service and boosting customer acquisitions, it's still a disservice to users."

UKERNA officials did not respond to requests for comment on the policy.

European analysts pointed to the related precedent of KPN, the Dutch national telecommunications company. KPN offers users an online service called HetNet (Dutch for "the Net") in which access to Dutch sites is available for one rate and international access costs more.

But Sawyer likened that model more to "an AOL-like proprietary online service that encourages users to stay within that universe. HetNet is a baby step towards the Internet," Sawyer said.

In its mission to manage transatlantic bandwidth use, the JISC was explicit in its goal to protect domestic sites and the English Internet industry as a whole. "We have good reasons not to bring in charges which would harm the development of networking within the U.K. itself," Rogerson wrote in his memo.

Charging for transatlantic access has introduced specific problems, such as whether and how universities distribute the charges to individual departments and whether they should eventually figure out how to charge individuals.

Another acknowledged concern is that charging for overseas access in an academic setting might be perceived as hindering research.

"It is suspected that the main consumers of data traffic are staff rather than students, and research-based universities rather than those where teaching is the main activity," said the University of Edinburgh's Pat Moran at a recent JISC meeting on the new fees. "Hence any substantial reduction of network demand would depend on the modification of behavior of research staff. This, it is argued, would run the risk of damaging the proper research work of the institution."

In response to the fees, universities have increased their reliance on caching, both on a national and school-by-school basis. Caching has cut fees by as much as 50 percent in some cases.

Reaction within the universities has been one of resignation and some understanding, according to Dave Tyson, an information systems programmer at the University of Liverpool.

"People are resigned to the fact that we're stuck with it," Tyson said. "This is just my opinion, but you can have too much of a free thing. People are careless with bandwidth, and charging means people are more careful."

At Liverpool, students and faculty are already accustomed to paying for computing resources. Last year, the school began a daily printing limit per user; beyond that quota, users have to pay.

"We were very late introducing this--most of the universities introduced it a few years ago," Tyson said. "As demand for resources goes up, the universities are going to have to start charging."