Proposed Internet policy would adversely affect graduate student employees

Regina Mills

As most members of the UT community know, a new bandwidth subscription policy was instituted and quickly put on hold after protests from undergraduates, graduate students, staff and faculty. The proposal would have required students to pay $3 to $8 to use the fastest wireless network on campus. Complaints were lodged through social media platforms such as Twitter and e-mails to Information Technology Services (ITS). I am sure that running the Internet infrastructure for a university of this size is difficult; the near ubiquity of smartphones, tablets and laptops has increased the strain on this infrastructure, so the University is looking for a way to maintain the quality while also keeping costs down.

Buying bandwidth is not entirely new; since 2005, if you ran out of the weekly allowance, you had to buy more. However, the introduction of a “second-class” network and the requirement that every student subscribe every semester to one of four tiers of bandwidth quality is entirely new and has a few potential pitfalls that should be considered before a new (hopefully improved) policy is put into place.

Because there is no doubt that there will be a new bandwidth plan put into place, and if, as UT spokesman Kevin Almasy has said, the University is really willing to listen to community feedback, I am happy to give it.

For me, a graduate student who has taught approximately 120 students, and other graduate students who act as instructors and as teaching assistants, there are at least three things that need to be taken into account regarding any new wireless policy.

First, the four tiers created under the most recent proposal, which ranged from 10 GB to 500 GB of bandwidth, did not reflect the reality of employment at UT. Under the proposed tier system, only tenured and tenure-track faculty would get Tier IV bandwidth automatically. However, as undergraduate students are likely aware, faculty are not the only ones who teach or provide other full-time services at the University. The previous plan suggested that adjunct faculty (also known as lecturers) and graduate students were not as important as faculty. Indeed, several of the graduate students I know did not even know where we fit into the schema if we were not being funded by Graduate School-backed scholarships, which most do not receive until much later in their graduate school careers. Anyone who teaches students should receive faculty-level bandwidth so that they can do the work necessary to be the best teacher possible for their students. No employer would make their employee pay them for internet usage required to do the work they were hired for.

Second, the old proposal either did not account for or dismissed the validity of the digital divide — a term to describe the gap between who does and does not get Internet access in a time in which internet access is nearly impossible to do without. While $3 to $8 dollars a semester may not seem like a burden, we must remember that students already pay a lot to live on campus or at an off-campus apartment close to UT or a shuttle (both of which types of residences are ridiculously expensive), take out loans and work one or two jobs — all of this just to pay for their UT education, so an additional cost on top of the existing tuition costs may lead to decisions that will not benefit the student, such as skipping out on tech-heavy classes that could impart crucial skills for the modern job market. The University should have to think hard about new fees because we all know that while it may be $3 to $8 now, this fee will likely rise year-to-year. According to UT, the proposed subscriptions would only pay for 95 percent of the internet infrastructure anyway, so it is easy to see how they could start wanting to push more and more of this to the student.

Some undergraduate students I have talked to see the bandwidth subscription plan as a way for students to “choose” their bandwidth level. It’s easy to applaud the idea of “choice,” but in many ways, this choice is illusory. Professors could require you to buy more bandwidth in order to take certain required classes. The ITS website about bandwidth suggests that the lowest tier would only allow for checking e-mail, so use of pretty much any other technology besides Blackboard and a few other exceptions would require you to buy a plan. Instructors and students should not be punished for using 21st-century technologies. Aren’t we supposed to be preparing students for the technology they’ll encounter in their future careers? Considering the University’s constant praise of classes that experiment with tech in the classroom, the proposed policy seems to create a mixed message.

Lastly, this policy’s lack of clarity is just another in a recent line of confusing ultimatums from UT. Like the new time-to-degree policy handed down from the College of Liberal Arts, this bandwidth policy was, intentionally or unintentionally, confusing to many communities in UT who are routinely in a no-man’s land – graduate students, staff and adjunct faculty.

Whatever new policy is enacted needs to take these critiques seriously and offer a policy that is coherent to everyone who makes up the foundation of the university.

Mills is a third-year graduate student in the Department of English from Warrenton, Virginia.