The University of Texas will tier its student broadband plans. Shane Pope/Flickr

The University of Texas is implementing a tiered-price web-acccess structure, while four North Carolina universities are joining their cities in building a more accessible regional network.

"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." (UPDATE 8/6: The University of Texas has dropped the new play, the Associated Press reports, after hearing from upset students.)

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 MB 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 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 stream Scandal 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.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that the previous student bandwidth plan was 500 GB per week. It was 500 MB per week.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a map of future climate risks in the U.S.
    Maps

    America After Climate Change, Mapped

    With “The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal,” the McHarg Center tries to visualize how the warming world will reshape the United States.

  2. photo: an Uber driver.
    Perspective

    Did Uber Just Enable Discrimination by Destination?

    In California, the ride-hailing company is changing a policy used as a safeguard against driver discrimination against low-income and minority riders.

  3. Perspective

    Why Car-Free Streets Will Soon Be the Norm

    In cities like New York, Paris, Rotterdam, and soon San Francisco, car-free streets are emerging amid a growing movement.

  4. photo: Robert Marbut, the incoming director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness,
    Equity

    The Consultant Leading the White House Push Against Homelessness

    In Texas and Florida, Robert Marbut Jr. sold cities on a controversial model for providing homeless services. Now he’s bringing it to the White House.

  5. photo: a Tower Records Japan Inc. store in Tokyo, Japan.
    Life

    The Bankrupt American Brands Still Thriving in Japan

    Cultural cachet, licensing deals, and density explain why Toys ‘R’ Us, Tower Records, Barneys, and other faded U.S. retailers remain big across the Pacific.

×