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In my opinion

Bring on the bandwidth

Students expect more Internet access than ever, and universities need to involve everyone in deciding how to provide it

BY JEFF ROBERTS | SEP 08 2008

Universities accustomed to gripes about classroom and office space had better get ready to deal with complaints over another scarce resource. As they welcome young people who have spent more of their lives on the Internet than watching television, Canada’s universities will be expected to provide bandwidth – lots of it – to their incoming students.

The decision to invest in increased bandwidth is not necessarily a straightforward one for universities. Network infrastructure is expensive and comes at the cost of other worthy projects. Moreover, the reality is that a good part of university bandwidth is already taken up with students swapping Jon Stewart clips and engaging in Facebook banter.

Nonetheless, universities may have little real choice in whether to expand Internet facilities because students have effectively made the decision for them. Undergraduates now arriving on campus are accustomed to sharing music files, watching online TV and using Voice Over Internet Protocol for long-distance calls. To them, significant caps on web use would be like imposing restrictions on hot water.

Some campuses have recognized strategic opportunities in offering widespread web access. Concordia University, for instance, not only offers campus-wide WiFi, but also has an ambitious plan to integrate VOIP technology into its wireless networks to allow people on campus to use cell phones without any cost to them. The University of Guelph, for its part, recently partnered with the Ontario government and a non-profit organization to host a symposium on “a broadband research agenda for Ontario.”

These types of initiatives are commendable, but they may be hard to implement because of the lack of available bandwidth. While universities’ internal networks typically have sufficient capacity, the ports that connect them to the commercial Internet do not. The result is slow traffic during afternoon peak times, and frustrated users.

So how should institutions respond to a generation that regards Internet access as a form of entitlement? The best response is for universities to adopt a comprehensive strategy that addresses the technological, political and legal challenges inherent in managing network infrastructure.

The first step is to demystify how bandwidth is supplied and managed. At present, debates on Internet policy are effectively monopolized by a small number of people who understand the esoteric vocabulary of advanced computer systems. This need not be the case. While the network technology is complex, the principle of resource allocation is not. In the case of bandwidth management, a university-wide policy needs to address two concepts: how much network capacity a university should buy and how best to prioritize and allocate existing capacity. These are decisions for the broader university community, not just the IT department.

Assigning priorities to the available bandwidth is a contentious question because it involves traffic management – throttling certain streams of data to speed up the delivery of other streams. This practice is known as “packet shaping” and is carried out not only on university networks but also in a surreptitious fashion by all retail Internet service providers. Critics complain that the practice is invasive and potentially discriminatory while defenders argue that it’s necessary since bandwidth consumption is expanding exponentially. Or, as some IT professionals put it, “today’s bandwidth hog will become tomorrow’s average user.”

So the question of how to assign priority for bandwidth use can be framed as a policy question that university communities need to discuss together to decide whose online communication needs are more valuable than others’. Should researchers have priority over students? Should students in film studies have faster access than students who want to watch online TV in their dorm?

The challenge of allocating bandwidth can for now be met through traffic management or through the introduction of pay-as-you-go fees for students. Such strategies, however, do not represent popular or long-term solutions. A recent estimate by Cisco Systems (reported on VideoNuze blog) is that by 2012, global broadband video traffic will be 380 times what U.S. Internet backbone traffic was in 2000. As online video use grows exponentially, students will increasingly press for Internet service that is fast and ubiquitous.

To meet this expectation, universities would be best to introduce a uniform network expansion fee to fund this growing demand. A fee would not only call students’ attention to the cost of bandwidth, but would also allow schools with the courage to impose such a fee, in time, to boast of their superior digital amenities.

The generation of students arriving on campus expect a lot from the Internet. They are accustomed to guzzling bandwidth on their laptops and mobile phones. The question for universities is not whether to accommodate them – it is how and how soon.

Mr. Roberts is a new-media lawyer who formerly worked for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

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