Should Colleges Be Broadband Hubs for Their Communities?

The University of Texas' plan could be worked out in different communities. The University of Texas' plan could be worked out in different communities. lanscape/Shutterstock.com

"What starts here changes the world." That's the motto at the University of Texas at Austin. You can hear venerable UT alumnus Walter Cronkite purr the school slogan on the "We're Texas" commercials that interrupt Longhorns football games. If you've got the Longhorn Network, that is.

Given that Texas-sized boast, some people in the academic community are worried this week over a new decision by UT. Yesterday, officials emailed the university community to explain details for a new tiered broadband structure the school is implementing this fall. When UT introduced the ESPN-owned Longhorn Network, the school poured gasoline a fire over broadcasting college athletics, turning it into an inferno. Much in the same way, the new bandwidth dispensation has critics worried that Texas will change the world once again—and maybe for the worse. 

When it goes into effect, the plan will restrict off-campus WiFi access according to a two-tiered plan, depending on what users pay. The university email prompted an eruption online over concerns that the tiers will divide Internet access to students by their ability to pay. In an unfortunate fit of literalism, the university has dubbed these broadband schedules as the "first-class network" and the "second-class network."

Should anyone who doesn't bleed burnt orange care? In some college towns, universities are working to become hubs for communities otherwise underserved by Internet providers. The University of Texas at Austin, on the other hand, is taking a different tack: The school doesn't exactly want to provide broadband for Austin. If this Texas two-step takes off, it would mean fewer public institutions providing for the common good in this regard (and all the more reason for why the nation needs a public infrastructure plan for broadband).  

Here's what will happen at UT: Up until now, students received 500 GB per week. Those who went over were kicked to a slower network if they didn't purchase more bandwidth. According to a school spokesperson, more than half of students were buying additional bandwidth. Now, after a free month for August, students will be required to pay $3 per semester for 10 GB per week. Students can buy still more bandwidth, from a suite of plans that go up to $8 per semester. 

Staff and faculty also got pinged: Faculty still get the big meal plan (500 GB per week). Full-time staff and certain graduate fellows will get 50 GB per week, while part-time staff receive the same 10 GB weekly allowance as students. (The bandwidth plans don't apply to public university or library desktop computers.)

Restricting broadband access for the entire university community affects a huge proportion of Austin residents—and that's the whole point, according to university spokesperson Kevin Almasy. Too much of the university's bandwidth is hogged by streaming video. UT doesn't want to pay for part-time staff to watch Orphan Black on demand. "You’re more than welcome to do that, but that’s a heavy charge for the university," Almasy says.

Meanwhile, universities in North Carolina's Research Triangle are rallying to bring better bandwidth access to all of Raleigh. Six municipalities and four Research Triangle universities (UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, Wake Forest University and N.C. State) joined together to form the North Carolina Next Generation Network, an effort to build a regional gigabit-bandwidth network. "Universities like N.C. State have really good network quality, but as you move across Hillsborough Street and throughout Raleigh, the quality of the network drops," N.C. State official Marc Hoit told the school's newspaper.

Critics such as education writer Audrey Watters and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom flagged the UT plan as one more example of the fee-structuring at major universities that treats students as customers and pits tenured faculty against contingent staff and adjuncts. While $3 per semester may not seem like much, school fees add up; conceivably, students without extra funds could be forced to spend more time trucking to the library to do research that is increasingly done via laptop. 

In a clumsy recruitment effort, the university email encourages professors to recommend broadband subscriptions in their course syllabi alongside course texts and other special class materials. But Almasy stresses that the school is subsidizing 95 percent of the costs for broadband access. The issue is that UT simply doesn't have an interest in subsidizing students and staff as they streamScandal throughout Austin. (William Green, the university's director for networking and telecommunications, could not respond right away to questions about UT's network costs.)  

At Texas—as at most every major university—money is both never and always the issue. The university launched its We're Texas campaign around 1997, and by 2004, it had raised a staggering $1.63 billion—billion with a B, as in Blanton or broadband or bullion. That span covers the time I spent at Texas as an undergrad. (Full disclosure: Hook 'em.)

Whether universities advocate for fiber in their cities or restrict access on their networks—or both—there's a problem. Broadband needs to be treated like a public good. The sooner it is served as a utility or via an Internet Superhighway System, and taken out of the hands of the municipalities (or the industries that drive them), the better for all classes of users.

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