Cornell U. Student Leads Petition Against Bandwidth Cap

More than 200 students at Cornell University have signed an online petition calling for the end of the university’s Internet bandwidth policy, which charges fees to students who exceed a monthly cap. Though the policy has been in place for nearly a decade, students argue that they now need more bandwidth than ever to take full advantage of the Internet, considering the popularity of video-streaming services like Netflix and video-conferencing systems like Skype.

Cristina A. Lara, a sophomore at Cornell studying industrial and labor relations, said that she began the petition last week, arguing that “charging students for Internet is ridiculous” considering how much students pay for tuition. Her goal is to persuade at least half of the university’s 13,000 undergraduates to sign on, she added.

Such disputes over the cost of campus Internet connections may become more common. Colleges around the country are taking a fresh look at how to control their Internet costs, as students bring more and more Internet-enabled gadgets and spend more time on data-intensive services. Cornell’s approach, called Network Usage-Based Billing, is somewhat unusual, though most institutions take at least some steps to control use, such as automatically slowing down the connections of bandwidth hogs.

Gregory A. Jackson, vice president of Educause, said that at a time of increased bandwidth use, universities will have to decide whether to charge students for Internet separately from room and board. He also said that universities have to figure out if the cost of keeping up with student demand is key to their educational mission—especially when much of the use is coming from entertainment sites like Netflix rather than academic services.

Ms. Lara said she was charged about $90 each month during her freshman year for Internet use that exceeded the university’s cap, mainly because of her heavy use of Skype, a popular video-calling service, which she used for at least two hours each day to chat with family and friends. She also streams movies over the Internet from Netflix.

The student said that access to bandwidth is crucial to the social lives of Cornell students who reside at the suburban Ithaca campus who want to stream video and music or access multimedia-rich sites. “It’s not encouraging students to use as much Internet as they can,” she said.

Tracy Mitrano, Cornell’s director of information-technology policy, said that the vast majority of students will never hit the cap, and argued that there is no such thing as an infinite network. According to Cornell’s Web site, less than 10 percent of students incurred charges for exceeding the 20-gigabyte limit during the fall-2010 semester. Students are charged less than a cent per extra megabyte but cannot be charged more than $1,000 per month regardless of use. Of those charged, the average monthly fee was about $30.

“It’s not possible to give everyone unlimited use,” Ms. Mitrano said. The cap does not apply to university-based sites, which students can use to carry on any academic activity, she said.

And she said the university has recently made adjustments in its policy in reaction to increased Internet use. Last month, Cornell raised the cap from 20 to 50 gigabytes.

“The approach that Cornell uses offers transparency and choice,” said Ms. Mitrano. She noted that Cornell provides students with clear information regarding their network usage by alerting them by e-mail when they are about to hit the limit and by setting specific rates for overuse fees.

Ms. Mitrano said Cornell’s metered model reflects a growing trend among commercial providers like Verizon and AT&T, which have eliminated unlimited mobile data plans in light of increased data usage.

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