Planned fee for campus Internet saddles students with extra cost

Amanda Almeda

At the most recent meeting of the Graduate Student Assembly, on March 5, representatives of UT’s Information Technology Services presented a proposal to charge students for wireless Internet access on campus. 

The new “Student Bandwidth Strategy” would replace UT’s current system, which allows students to use up to 500 megabytes of bandwidth per week for free, with one in which students would no longer receive minimum allocations and would have to pay $4.25 a semester for 5 gigabytes of data. The University has cited concerns about funding and the need to protect itself from liability in criminal cases as reasons for the plan’s necessity. 

ITS’ proposal should be more sensitive to the needs of students who operate on limited budgets and students who use campus Internet infrequently and irregularly, such as those students who have a limited number of classes on campus or whose classes do not require internet access. 

ITS governance suggests that the proposal, which will legally make it easier for the University to have the appearance of being an Internet service provider, is a necessary measure to raise funds for the growing technological needs of our campus. William Green, ITS’ director of networking and telecommunications, said non-residential student wireless usage, which accounts for 48 percent of all bandwidth used on the UT campus at peak hours, has been increasing in bandwidth use by 27 percent per year.

Admittedly, the new policy will help protect the University against liability issues that occur when a student does something illegal using Internet provided to them by the University. 

“Freedom is a key reason for this approach,” Green said. “In aggregate network samples and discussions with students, the majority of wireless bandwidth consumption does not appear to be related to education or research activities. Charging for bandwidth, acting as an Internet Service Provider, ensures students can continue to make their own choices without restrictions to sites/applications or slowdowns as some universities have implemented — no perceived conflict for non-mission related activities utilizing University funds. Acting as an ISP for all bandwidth consumed solidifies ‘Safe Harbor’ protections for the University.” 

Despite the proposed strategy’s advantages in terms of liability, some students still have concerns with the potential plan. And at the recent GSA meeting, some students were very vocal about their disagreement.

“[At the March 5 meeting], one graduate student, in particular, seemed surprised that UT had chosen this route especially since the vast majority of our peer institutions have not adopted a similar policy,” GSAPresident-elect David Villarreal said.  

Villarreal also expressed concern for students in financial need.

“While the fee of $5 per semester may seem nominal, it’s only one additional charge that combines with other little fees that can quickly add up for students on limited budgets or financial aid, and who’s to say the charge will still be $5 in five or 10 years?" Villarreal said.

Under the current wireless system, in addition to the free 500 megabytes, UT also allows users to download or upload an unlimited amount of information to and from University websites such as Blackboard. This is especially valuable for students who use small amounts of data specifically for class. While Green may have found that the majority of total student bandwidth consumption is non-school related, given the limits on the free bandwidth available to students, it is doubtful that the people participating in these high-bandwidth activities, such as watching Netflix, are using the free tier to begin with. Unfortunately, the University has no data on the type of bandwidth students use strictly for school-related activities, so this hunch will have to stay unconfirmed. But if it is true, then under the proposal, the first group of students — those who use only use small amounts of bandwidth and only for school-related purposes — will be stuck with yet another unnecessary fee. 

It is important to note that the Student Bandwidth Strategy is just a proposal and no official action has been taken. However, before rushing into a decision that may be detrimental to students in financial need or unfair to students who use Internet infrequently, ITS should consider alternatives modeled after other major universities. ITS should also be cautious about establishing yet another fee which, like so many other student expenses at UT, may be ever increasing in years to come.

Almeda is a marketing senior from Seattle.