WiFi dispute gets UTD students in uproar

AMAN BATHEJA
Fort Worth Star Telegram
September 22, 2004

It's OK to make college students do more homework, write longer papers or even pay higher tuition. But mess with their Internet access and you'll get some high-tech turmoil.

Through the power of blogs, or online journals, news that officials at the University of Texas at Dallas were trying to restrict students from using personal wireless networks grew from a local dispute to a national online debate on student rights.

"It turned into a much bigger issue than I had anticipated it would have," said Bill Hargrove, executive director of information resources.

Two days after officials announced the restrictions, the school in Richardson's silicon corridor was forced to back off on its demand.

Earlier this month, UT-Dallas' Information Resources Department posted a letter on the doors of every room in the Waterview Park Apartments, the school's on-campus residence. The letter addressed the issue of personal wireless networks, which are apparently interfering with the university's official wireless network.

For more than a year, UT-Dallas has provided wireless Internet access throughout its campus, including student residences. But many students opted to bypass the network and pay for service with local providers. Instead of each roommate paying for his or her own connection, many rooms have installed private wireless networks, described in the letter as "rogue" access points, which allow them to share the costs.

The "rogues" are just like the school's official network but are only strong enough to accommodate computers nearby. The number of "rogue" access points at Waterview jumped from a handful earlier this year to more than 100 last month, Hargrove said.

The main problem with these networks, Hargrove said, is they interfere with use of the university's wireless network, at times keeping those trying to use the official network from even signing on.

"Such interference is not only unfair to other residents, but it is also a violation of UTD policy and will not be permitted," the letter read.

Threatening disciplinary action to those who didn't comply, the letter said that those using private Internet connections must either switch their wireless networks to a frequency that doesn't interfere with the school's network or dissolve their "rogue" access point and log on the old-fashioned way -- with a wire connecting their computer to the wall.

"It's when it's wireless that it interferes," Hargrove said.

Students immediately took their outrage online. One student-run site received dozens of comments from students. One visitor referred to UT-Dallas as "the Gestapo." Another said he had contacted a lawyer.

The issue moved beyond the realm of the university when it was covered on Slashdot, a Web forum on technology issues read by millions. The posting received more than 1,100 comments in just 12 hours. The issue was soon discussed on other popular sites including Techdirt, News.com, and MIT's Technology Review.

UT-Dallas reversed the ban after discovering an FCC ruling prohibiting the restriction of wireless access points by landlords. Many colleges have restricted "rogue" access points on their campuses, Hargrove said. However, according to the FCC, the university does not appear to have that power because some rooms in Waterview Apartments are rented by faculty members, meaning that they are not traditional dormitories, he said.

Interference with the university's wireless network continues to be a problem for students, Hargrove said.

"Students who can't afford to pay for their own Internet connection have a right to use the university's network free of charge," he said.

Area colleges have been establishing campus wireless networks in recent years, although UT-Dallas is one of the first to expand the network to student residences.

The school made the decision several years ago when it considered wiring the residences and discovered that providing a wireless network would be cheaper than equipping every room with an Internet connection.

"I received communications on this from colleges as far as Oregon, and they've all been saying we're working on our wireless network and we're going to start facing the same stuff," Hargrove said.

On Waterviewsux.com, several posters took the university's reversal as a sign of the student body's power.

"You all make me proud to be a student here," one visitor wrote.

Another added, "Long live the nerds."

All about WiFi

* Short-range networking systems -- known as WiFi -- allow students and faculty with wireless computers to access the Internet from places outside computer labs, including student lounges and even outdoors.

* Area schools including Texas Christian University, the University of North Texas and University of Texas at Arlington have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars expanding their WiFi networks over the past two years.

* The University of Texas at Dallas is one of the first area schools to provide wireless service to student residences. Representatives at UNT and TCU said the schools will likely expand their wireless networks to their student residences in the future.

* The Federal Communications Commission has said that college campuses can prohibit the use of personal wireless access points that could interfere with a college-provided wireless network. UT-Dallas officials said their student residences don't qualify, however, because some of the apartments are rented to faculty members.

* Students age 18 to 24 are adopting public WiFi at about twice the rate of the average online population, largely through exposure to the technology on campuses and from peers, according to a recent study from JupiterResearch.

SOURCES: FCC
ONLINE: www.utdallas.edu; www.slashdot.org; waterviewsux.com
Aman Batheja, (817) 390-7752 abatheja@star-telegram.com