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September 28, 2000

Outside Internet service provider may be available for a fee by November

Improved off-campus access to Pitt computing services may be available to faculty, staff and students — for a price — by early November, a University administrator said last week.

Under a deal being finalized between Pitt and an as-yet-unnamed, outside Internet service provider (ISP), members of the University community would be given the option of paying a monthly fee for better remote access to their e-mail, the Web and other services available through Pitt's network.

Pitt and the ISP recently settled the remaining issues that had been holding up their negotiations, said Robert F. Pack, vice provost for Academic Planning and Resources Management.

ISP officials "are telling us that with these issues out of the way, they will be able to sign up customers and implement service here within six weeks," Pack told the University Senate's budget policies committee on Sept. 22.

Pitt's administration won't identify the ISP until a contract is signed. Nor would Pack specify the issues that have delayed an agreement.

The University currently maintains 800 modems, available for free to employees and students seeking to connect to Pitt's network from off-campus. But that's not enough to prevent would-be users from getting annoying busy signals, especially during peak evening hours.

Pitt had hoped to announce a vendor last February and mail ISP subscription options to faculty and staff by the end of the spring term.

Pack blamed the delay on the vendor. Pitt's project involves four or five different units within the provider's corporation, none of which wanted to take responsibility for the project, according to Pack. "We eventually had to take it very high within the corporate structure" to push negotiations forward, he said.

"It has been an extraordinarily vexing negotiation," Pack told the University Senate committee. "If anybody ever tells you that corporations are better at doing business than universities, don't believe them. Corporations have exactly the same issues over trying to align different business units around a corporate strategy as universities do trying to align different academic units in order to move in a single direction."

Pitt's move to an ISP system has vexed a number of professors, who argue that off-campus access to the University network is integral to their teaching and research, so they should not be charged for it.

But one of the themes of Pitt's $9.6 million, three-year information technology plan is that heavier users of the network should help to pay for better access.

In January, Pack told the University Senate budget policies committee: "For those who are satisfied with the current service, who only use it to check their e-mail for example, that will still be available" through the modem pool. "For others, an option of a monthly fee will be available. Not everyone working at this University needs to access the Internet from home for work purposes."

Off-campus access through Pitt's free modem service should improve as more users opt for the ISP, Pack said.

Pitt and its prospective ISP vendor have worked out a separate deal whereby the University soon will purchase badly needed bandwidth for its computing network.

For the last several weeks, the network has been plagued by disruptions, periodic unavailability of key systems such as CourseInfo, and even a lengthy, complete network outage.

In a Sept. 18 memo about network disruptions to deans, directors and regional campus presidents, Provost James Maher wrote that additional bandwidth, nearly doubling Pitt's current allocation, will be available by early October.

Vice Provost Pack told the Senate's budget policies committee: "As a result of the way technology has evolved, I think that the provider we chose will be able to give us a broad-band solution that will be very good, much better than we thought was possible at the start of these negotiations."

Pitt has begun a comprehensive analysis of its network, looking at every router and connection to identify all points of weakness and potential failure. Based on this analysis, remedial action will be taken to fix problems and ensure the network's stability, Pack said.

"Once we have re-established the reliability of the network, we can evolve it forward, following the [three-year information technology] plan."

Pitt's administration has asked students who connect to the network in residence halls and in public computing labs to limit their use of entertainment-based applications such as the free music program Napster, which consume large amounts of bandwidth.

"Such an educational approach is consistent with our overall academic mission," Maher wrote. "We had earlier clarified our policy restricting the use of computers as servers from the residence halls."

But while the administration has asked students to remember that Pitt's network is a shared resource, and to limit their use of music and video sites, such sites "are not the fundamental problem" with the University's computing network, said Pack.

He added: "The University's policy is that we don't ban sites that are legal." And downloading free music from Napster remains legal, pending resolution of a lawsuit by the record industry against Napster.

Nor does Pitt plan to monitor which sites its students are accessing through the University's network, Pack said.

Last week, Penn State notified its students that their use of PSU's network will be monitored for potential violations of copyright. But Penn State also said — in rejecting a plea from lawyers for recording artists Metallica and Dr. Dre — that it has no plans to forbid students from accessing Napster.

— Bruce Steele  

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 3

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