UT cancels new Wi-Fi fee amid student outrage

A new Wi-Fi fee launched this fall at the University of Texas at Austin would have cost about $1 a month for students, but it sparked such outrage on social media that the university backed off after two days.

On Twitter, students who were notified via email last week of the policy shift called the charges absurd, an example of how the university nickels and dimes them.

“$33k a year and the university can’t even afford to provide free WiFi anymore?” one asked.

Now UT officials say they would like input from students about the new policy that would charge $3 per semester for 10 gigabytes of weekly bandwidth on UT’s wireless network. Under the proposed plan, students who did not pay would have been forced to use a slower network.

Currently, students who live off campus can get 500 megabytes each week for free before being placed on the slower network.

“We are not pressed to resolve this change quickly. What is more important is that we do what is right for our students,” said Kevin Hegarty, the university’s vice president and chief financial officer, in a statement.

Officials said that about half of the students who use the service are already purchasing extra bandwidth when they go over the 500 megabyte limit. That limit has been in place since 2005, when Blackberries were the wireless device of choice.

“The use of bandwidth has exploded in the last four years so we’re looking at a very different landscape than when the policy was first created,” said J.B. Bird, spokesman for the university.

The fees help supplement the university’s cost to provide internet access, which includes $6 million annually to maintain equipment like switches, routers, Wi-Fi access points, and cables. Even with the new fees, the university would have continued to shoulder 95 percent of the costs, officials say.

James Harkins, a graduate student in the School of Information, said students are upset that the university is threatening “net neutrality,” the idea that access to the Internet should be equal for everyone.

“It’s going to be those who are less likely to afford it who are obviously not going to spend the extra $3 or $8 for it and they should have just as much access,” he said.

Officials say that the number of devices hooked onto its networks continues to grow about 25 percent annually. In 2012-2013, more than 250,000 unique devices used the university’s network, most of them wireless. Seven years ago, there were 27,510 users.

Currently, students pay $4.25 per semester for an additional 5 gigabytes of bandwidth per week.

Playing a two-hour movie in high definition uses 5 gigabytes of data, and students say it’s easy to burn through much more than that.

For computer science major Tolu Kalejaiye, who uses the campus Wi-Fi heavily and has had to purchase more bandwidth, the new prices seemed reasonable.

“A bunch of our classes, we constantly have to go to the class website,” he said. “If you were to watch a show, it would be gone just like that. It’s very easy to use up all your data.”

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