Students who spend a lot of time watching television and movies might risk lower grades. At Cornell University, they might risk higher bills.
Since 2003, Cornell has charged students who consume a lot of bandwidth on the university’s network for network activity that exceeds a monthly threshold. Now one student, with backing and publicity help from Change.org , is petitioning  the administration to drop the network usage-based billing model. Students should not be billed extra, she says, for heavy use of bandwidth-eating applications such as video-streaming sites.
Sophomore Cristina Lara’s push to eliminate the network-usage charges at Cornell might not stand a chance. The university more than doubled its network-usage threshold in July, and even before that officials estimated that only 10 percent of students were charged overage fees in any given month.
Still, experts say the growth of Web streaming as the preferred way for students to watch television and movies and listen to music stands to strain campus networks. And as more students begin streaming rich media, campuses may have to decide whether to treat the students’ heedless use of Netflix and Hulu as an entitlement or a luxury.
Lara, the Cornell petitioner, has framed the network-usage fees as a tax on students who prefer consuming Web videos to consuming alcohol. “While some students opt to partake in drug-related pastimes, other students stay in and watch movies, talk on Skype or iChat, or even just surf the Web,” wrote Lara in a Web petition addressed to university officials. “We should not be penalized for this,” she wrote, particularly given how much students already pay in tuition and fees.
Lara says that last year, her first at Cornell, she racked up hundreds of dollars in excess network-usage charges — including $150 for one month. She told Inside Higher Ed that she does not download files from torrent sites; she just likes to watch videos on Netflix and Hulu, and does so a lot. Lara says she also spends several hours every week talking to family and friends on Skype.
“If Cornell was situated in a major metropolitan area with a vast nightlife that could accomodate[sic] the interests of most, if not all, our undergraduates, then many Cornellians wouldn't be so inclined to stay in their rooms and get on the Internet," she wrote in a note with the petition on Change.org. "But that's not the case. Cornell's Greek life dominates the social scene, making ‘nightlife’ a dividing factor in the community.”
In fact, Cornell raised the threshold earlier this summer — from 20 gigabytes per month to 50. Lara acknowledges that this should reduce the overage fees she might incur in the coming year, but she continues to stand against the threshold on principle. “With a pricetag $57,000 per year, Cornell University should give it’s[sic] students unlimited Internet usage,” she wrote on Change.org.
As of Monday evening, Lara’s online petition had collected 240 signatures. She says her goal is 6,000 signatures — roughly half of the Cornell undergraduate student body.
Tracy Mitrano, director of I.T. policy at Cornell, told Inside Higher Ed she thinks Cornell’s policy on bandwidth management is better than some alternatives. (Full disclosure: Mitrano writes a blog  on I.T. policy and law for Inside Higher Ed.) Many other colleges use tools called “packet shapers,” which allow network administrators to prioritize certain network activities over others. If the network is stressed, packet-shaping administrators might slow the connection in a dorm so as to let connections in the library run at normal speed.
Cornell’s “business-model” approach is more transparent, says Mitrano. Not only are students notified when they are approaching the monthly threshold, but they are never deprived of a speedy connection by any network administrator acting as a “wizard behind the curtain.” The packet-shaping approach is “opaque to the user for the most part — the user has no choice, and a very large percentage of student users have very little information about what it is and how it works,” Mitrano says. Cornell’s tack might take a small tribute from heavy users (Mitrano says some heavy users pay more than $100 extra, but 95 percent of those who exceed the threshold pay less than $10 under the 20 gigabyte-per-month regime), but at least the university is upfront about it, she says.
In general, the question colleges need to ask is whether the ability to stream Web-based media for free without limit should be included in the price of room and board, or if students who stress the network with excessive activity should be charged extra, says Gregory Jackson, vice president for policy and analysis at Educause.
If the modern college student watches TV on her laptop (or iPad), why shouldn’t she be allowed to watch it ad nauseam for no extra fee, like she might cable TV? The difference, says Jackson, is that too much Web-based streaming might disrupt other people using the network for nonrecreational purposes. With the Web, “We’re in an environment now where everything is integrated,” says Jackson.
Netflix, which has shifted its services in recent years to focus on instant streaming of films and TV series, may be the biggest contributor to nonacademic activity on campus networks. In the last year, it has overtaken the notorious file-sharing site BitTorrent as the leading contributor to Web traffic in North America, according to a recent report  by Sandvine, Inc., a company that sells networking equipment. As a whole, real-time entertainment composed nearly half on peak-period aggregate Web traffic in March 2011, according to that report. (File-sharing clocked in at a distant second, at 18.8 percent. Real-time communications apps, such as Skype, barely made a ripple at 2.9 percent.)
The cost of accommodating the network activity of the typical student has risen accordingly. In order to keep at 10 percent the proportion of students paying a luxury tax on their excessive network usage, Cornell has had to raise the threshold exponentially: in 2003, it was at 2 gigabytes per month.
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