A Response to "A Pedagogical and Economic Critique of Student Charges for Internet Access"

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This paper is a practitioner response by an IT manager to a paper by Duncan Greaves entitled "A pedagogical and economic critique of student charges for Internet access", which appears in the same issue of IJEDICT. Greaves' article proposes four mechanisms to solve this "public goods problem". The author explores the challenges of Internet service provision in a no-charging low bandwidth environment and specifically considers the implications of Greaves' recommendations to solve this problem: right-sizing the bandwidth; having appropriate policy frameworks; capitalising on community mores and sensibility; and using technology smartly.

Keywords: Bandwidth management, South Africa, university, public goods, Internet

INTRODUCTION

At a philosophical and pedagogical level I agree wholeheartedly with Duncan Greaves' thesis in his paper "A pedagogical and economic critique of student charges for Internet access". Indeed, Greaves makes a well-argued and thoughtful case for not charging students for Internet access. In particular, his comment about "the intrinsically ludic nature of the web" rings true with my own experiences of learning to use the web and of teaching 'newbies'.

However, my interest in this topic is not academic. I am responsible for service provision in the kind of non-charging, low-bandwidth environment described in Greaves's article. It is up to me and my colleagues to make sure that users at my institution have a reasonable level of Internet access. And when the Internet is 'slow' or 'down' we have a barrage of complaints from enraged and frustrated customers. Thus I face a dilemma. From a theoretical perspective, I concur that charging students for internet access may be well harmful and "amplify the digital divide". On the other hand, as a "rational, self-interested" person, I know that in practice charging would make my life as a service provider much easier. This paper is therefore about the nuts-and-bolts of implementation.

Greaves argues that Internet bandwidth is a public good. According to The Economist (2005), public goods have three characteristics. "They are:

* Non-rival - one person consuming them does not stop another person consuming them;

* Non-excludable - if one person can consume them, it is impossible to stop another person consuming them;

* Non-rejectable - people cannot choose not to consume them even if they want to.1

Greaves' article proposes four mechanisms to solve this "public goods problem". These are:

1) Right-sizing the bandwidth;

2) Having appropriate policy frameworks;

3) Capitalising on community mores and sensibility;

4) Using technology smartly.

I will discuss each of these in turn, and list some challenges involved in putting these mechanisms into place.

RIGHT-SIZING THE BANDWIDTH

Greaves writes that "given a basic workstation count there has to be a commensurate level of supply. An easy thing to do is to benchmark against comparable institutions." Right-sizing the bandwidth inevitably has to be the starting point, but there are a number of difficulties with implementation.

Firstly, how does one choose a "comparable" institution? This needs to be an institution that also operates in a low-bandwidth environment, does not charge and has similar usage requirements. It also needs to have acceptable Internet access speeds and largely satisfied users, otherwise there is no point in benchmarking against it.

Secondly, Internet applications are growing more and more bandwidth-intensive. In the early days, the Web was a text-only medium, but this was soon followed by images, then audio, then streaming video, all of which are extremely demanding of bandwidth. This poses a budgetary difficulty: the institution will have to commit to an annual benchmarking exercise, on the understanding that the demand will grow each year, possibly in exponential leaps. …