Bandwidth Exceeded

August 4, 2014

While most of academe rages against the Federal Communication Commission’s plans to divide the Internet into fast and slow lanes, some universities are already throttling traffic to websites they deem less informational than others and charging users for access based on their rank.

It may seem like a contradiction -- arguing for a free and open internet across the country while limiting access on campus -- but these seemingly conflicting stances on “net neutrality” highlight the economic realities of running a campuswide network. As faculty, staff members and students continue to demand faster speeds and improved networking infrastructure, many campus IT offices are finding their budgets can’t address the demand.

Last Wednesday, the University of Texas at Austin announced it would make some students pay to access its network, even though part of what students pay for in tuition is used to fund IT infrastructure.

The university has created its own fast and slow lanes, splitting its network into two classes of service. At the beginning of each week, residential students, faculty members and staff all have access to the “first-class network,” but once they exceed their weekly bandwidth allocation, they are kicked into what the university describes as a “limited and very slow ... second-class network.”

“It’s essentially doing what the private cable companies are attempting to do and throttle the internet based on usage habits,” said Lindsey M. Gay, a graduate student in English. Gay said the new policy has spawned fresh debates about the role of public institutions in ensuring access to the internet. “If the digital world is here to stay, how are we going to provide equitable access to that knowledge?”

Bandwidth Management Discussed

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Already by late Friday evening, J.B. Bird, the university’s director of media outreach, said the policy is on hold. “Moving forward we are working with the campus community to address bandwidth,” he said in an email.

Under the policy, students living off campus -- who previously received 500 megabytes of bandwidth for free -- would be relegated to the second-class network unless they purchased a data plan. Pricing starts at $3 a semester, and students who didn’t subscribe would receive “daily reminders” until they did.

Faculty members, in comparison, are given 500 gigabytes for free, while full-time staffers receive one-tenth of that. Residential students, however, risk getting stuck in the second-class network for the rest of the week after a just couple of hours of aimless browsing.

Students living on campus subscribe to the Residence Hall Network, or Resnet, and the cost of room and board includes a data plan of 10 gigabytes a week. Put into perspective, that means students can burn through their allotment by watching about four hours’ worth of Netflix, or by downloading slightly more than half the video game "Titanfall" on their Xboxes.

The university recommends avid gamers or video streamers upgrade to one of the three larger data plans. For $60 per academic year, students can bump their cap up to 500 gigabytes a week, and also receive access to a blazingly fast wired gigabit connection.

In case faculty members, staff or students go overboard before the week is up, the university offers “emergency one-time bandwidth” priced at $5 for five gigabytes.

Traffic within the university’s network is exempt from the data cap, but not educational materials from outside the university. Gay pointed out that, in practice, the policy meant “If I wanted to show my students something in The New York Times, then that counts against me.

“Some students, I think, will just be less inclined to do really creative projects if they know their data cap is going to be exceeded because of my class,” Gay added. “I feel like they might reach out into the world less. Or find ways around [the data cap] that are ethically questionable.”

Most graduate students, Gay said, would likely be counted as off-campus students, which means they would have to pay a couple of dollars a semester to log on.

“It is a really low price, but it’s not really the cost of it that’s irking people,” Gay said. “At some point, it’s going to make us pay to do our jobs -- especially as grad students, because a lot of the classes we teach emphasize or use the internet in ways that are going to be impacted by this.”

Gay said she preferred a policy where everyone can access the network for free, but where bandwidth-heavy sites such as Netflix are throttled unless users pay a fee. Still, throttling certain sites “doesn’t seem like a perfect solution,” she said.

Some institutions have already done so. The University of Portland, for example, early last last year split web traffic into seven tiers, prioritizing university sports broadcasts and educational content. For residential students, the university’s website loads faster than Facebook, which in turn loads faster than Reddit. Porn is banished to the lowest tier.

Student responses to UT-Austin’s policy ranged from outraged to resigned to unconcerned. While some criticized the university for creating a new fee, students such as rising senior Darwin Pek said internet at the university is a “dirt cheap” alternative to plans from internet service providers.

“In comparison, if I wanted comparable speeds back home in Austin, I couldn't,” Pek said in an email. “I could instead pay something like $60 a month for the best service in my area, and it isn't as reliable ... or half as fast as the university's.”

Pek, a computer science major who serves as president of UT-Austin’s Electronic Game Developers Society, said members of the organization need plenty of bandwidth to upload and download game assets to work with other developers, but that the low cost of university internet makes it a non-issue.

He added, “It’s ridiculous how cheap internet is at the university given how good it is. I know people who would kill to get this kind of service back home.”

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