Skype Skirmishes on Campus

Campuses move to restrict popular Internet phone service, citing bandwidth concerns that students dispute.
September 29, 2006

Asked how often he uses Skype, a free Internet service that lets users call around the world at no cost, Andrew Venegas, a junior at San Jose State University, didn’t miss a beat.

“I’m on Skype now.”

Skype, founded in 2002, has nearly tripled its reach in the past year, growing from 44 million users one year ago to 113 million today, said Jennifer Caukin, a Skype spokeswoman. Skype users can make and receive calls from one computer to another across the globe at no cost and can call land lines at low rates: two cents a minute for calls to China and the United Kingdom and, until the end of December, free within the United States, Canada and Mexico. Among the biggest groups taking advantage of the bargain are business owners, ex-pats, and, of course, that population that often lives far from home and somewhere near the cutting edge of technology -- college students.

But as Skype expands its reach, some colleges are cracking down, raising questions about a built-in feature that can turn a Skype user’s computer into a relay station, or “node,” for other users, eating a college network’s bandwidth by opening it to serve as host to external connections. San Jose State reached an agreement with Skype to restrict the program’s relay functions this week, becoming the latest in a series of universities to consider limiting or discouraging the program’s use.

“The contentious part about Skype is of course the relay function,” said Kevin Schmidt, campus network programmer at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which banned use of Skype anywhere on its campus other than dormitories last January. Skype’s licensing agreement requires that a user grant the peer to peer program access to the user’s network. “If you’re installing this software, you’re granting use of bandwidth to an outside party. That simply can’t happen,” Schmidt said. Upon implementing the ban, he added, network speeds at UC Santa Barbara noticeably increased.

The University of Minnesota also has a policy posted online “discouraging” use of Skype, citing excessive use of network resources and the fact that individual users lack the authority to provide university bandwidth to power Skype’s service. At California State University’s Dominguez Hills campus, Russ Hudson, a spokesman, said Skype is not banned, but nor is its use supported on state-owned, state-operated computers: the university’s information technology team will not help fix Skype-related problems, and will remove Skype if it is found to be interfering with necessary programs.

But the campus fight over Skype has attracted the most attention at San Jose State, where campus officials recently backed off from an announced ban on the administrative network in response to faculty objections. The university had planned to institute the Skype ban -- which would not have affected dormitory or library computers -- September 14, citing similar concerns to those expressed elsewhere: that Skype’s relay function opens the network to non-university business and that use of Skype “exceeds incidental personal use.”

At a meeting this week, though, officials from eBay, which purchased Skype in 2005, and San Jose State worked out a “mutual agreement” that will enable the university to continue supporting the service, said Don Baker, interim associate vice president of San Jose State.

Baker declined to elaborate on the agreement, but Skype’s Caukin said the two groups found a technical solution that will enable San Jose State’s network users to access Skype without the risk of their computers serving as relay stations for others. A similar solution has been reached at the University of Oxford, in England, Caukin said.

Asked if he still holds the concerns originally outlined by San Jose State’s administration when the ban was proposed, Baker paused. “In all honesty, no, I have a lot more things to be concerned about now than Skype.”

In addition to letting penny-pinching students make free long-distance calls and potentially reducing business costs for colleges, Skype also serves a crucial academic function, said Steve Sloan, who teaches a class in new media at San Jose State. Sloan uses the program in working with students and in collaborating with educators from across the globe. “Skype is like a common ground, kind of like ‘http’ is a common ground for the Web,” said Sloan, who is in the midst of setting up a Skype call between his students and the author of an assigned book. “In my opinion, not using Skype puts us at a potential competitive disadvantage to other universities, especially as universities are increasingly having to compete in a flat world,” Sloan said.

Venegas, whose blog posts against the proposed San Jose State ban attracted a mini-media frenzy, frequently uses Skype to speak with instructors online. “It’s a lot easier than having a cell phone strapped to your head,” he said.

Skype’s Caukin said it is a misconception that Skype nodes use excessive bandwidth -- they use no more than five kilobits per second, she said -- and Skype calls on computers not serving as nodes require only incidental bandwidth. The program does allow for users to send and receive accepted file transfers, however, which can require more network resources.

“Skype works over dial-up. How much of a bandwidth hog can it be if it works over dial-up?” Sloan asks.

Caukin also mentioned the security of Skype as a benefit, which UC Santa Barbara’s Schmidt generally agreed with. While Skype usage introduces some extra risk to campus networks by penetrating firewalls and allowing users to send encrypted file transfers that cannot be filtered, its use generally does not pose a great threat to network security, Schmidt said.
Rodney Petersen, security task force coordinator for Educause, higher education’s main technology association, said concerns about Skype’s effect on computer security seem to be few in number.

Petersen’s task force is still looking into questions surrounding Skype’s bandwidth requirements and the language of the licensing agreement, but in the meantime he stated his belief that every college should reserve its right to withdraw support of applications that use “disproportionate” resources.


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