Students get hard lesson

Many college students have come to think of free Internet access as a natural part of their education. But universities are beginning to dispense some harsh lessons in economics.

CNET News staff
4 min read
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, laden with rising costs and increasing demand for online connections, are beginning to dispense some harsh lessons in reality: asking them to pay for it.

Universities began giving students Internet access as a courtesy when professors and a few techno-savvy students were the only ones on the Net. Today, with both computer experience and time on their hands, students use the Net not only for email and research but also to shop, watch movies, and even fall in love.

This raises a sensitive question: Should universities, especially those maintained with taxpayer money, pay for all this by themselves? The answer at a growing number of campuses is no.

"It's just not fiscally responsible for the university to provide network access to all students, all the time," said David Golden, an information technology consultant at San Francisco State University. "Whatever we do, it will never be enough. We can never provide enough modems and other infrastructure."

As the number of college students populating the virtual world skyrockets, administrators are finding that university budgets simply cannot keep up with the campus demand for Net access. So, to the outrage of many who are already paying record-high tuitions, some universities are pushing students to pay for commercial Internet service out of their own pockets.

San Francisco State has cut a deal with SprintLink to give students 75 hours of prime-time access and 90 off-time hours for a flat rate of $12.50 per month, a significant price break from the usual cost of $19.95 for unlimited use or $1.50 per hour. And Netcom has agreed to give students at the University of California at Berkeley unlimited monthly usage for $5 for the first month and $14.95 thereafter.

But these rates, considered bargains to the average consumer, aren't necessarily good news for the students who have to pay them. And the university's reasoning for arranging such deals--valid or not--don't always sit well with them either.

Universities provide students Internet access in two ways, through computer labs on campus or modems at homes or dorm rooms. At the labs, students work at computers that are hooked directly to the university server by a T1 connection that allows fast data transfer and download time.

To connect students from home, universities must maintain a large number of modems--or modem pools--of their own. These modems are linked to a "switch" or "router," which is plugged in to the university server and gives students access to university information such as library catalogues, as well as the Internet.

Both options have economic limitations, given the student demand. San Francisco State, for example, has 19 computer labs, some of which are open 24 hours a day. But the lines are long and growing.

Don Danner, computing services lab manager, says the wait runs between 20 minutes and one hour unless you come between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. This despite the two-hour limit of computer use and the ban of Internet Relay Chat and game environments such as MUD (multiuser dungeon)--which the university has officially declared a "waste of time."

Trying to log on from home is even worse. San Francisco State maintains a pool of almost 200 modems for its more than 30,000 students and 1,800 faculty and staff.

"It's the busy signals," said Dylan Woon, a user consultant at the 24-hour lab. "The school can't provide enough access."

Jeanette Cagungun, a first-semester student at San Francisco State, waits in line at the lab because "you simply can?t get on at home. You always get a busy signal."

Golden says the problem is the way that students use the Net. Before, they were only using it for email, which at most took a few seconds to download. Now, students log in to the server and surf the Web for hours--admittedly not always for research.

So how much does it really cost universities to provide students the access they need?

Jerry Smith, director of computing services at UC Berkeley, says that with 13 campus labs and more than 500 computers, the department budget is about $1.2 million per year, not counting equipment replacement and upgrades. The annual cost of modem access alone approaches half a million dollars.

And that doesn't even come close to keeping up with student demand.

Cliff Frost, director of data communications and network services at Berkeley, said his school has compared its service and costs with a number of other UC campuses but hasn't found any better solutions.

"There are huge modem-access pressures and problems all over the country," he said. "And we have not found anyone who is completely happy with their situation."

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