From the end of this month, the "backbone" of the United States Internet will be privatised. A year ago, the Usenet discussion groups carried on the Internet were alive with speculation on the dire effects of this. Now, most people are much calmer.
At present, US universities pay the National Science Foundation a flat annual fee for an Internet connection of a given capacity, and can run it flat out at no extra cost. In a few months, they will start getting bills from Sprint, Ameritech and Pacific Bell for the volume of information they send out.
As Lee McLoughlin, system administrator for London's Imperial College says, this "may change what information (US universities) are prepared to make publicly available and to whom they give access." That would affect United Kingdom access to major archive sites for information and tools.
But "sponsorship is the obvious way" to fund these, says McLoughlin. We could see the archive of Usenet discussions becoming "rtfm.mit.edu sponsored by Cisco".
Daniel Schneider, technical research assistant developing education materials at the University of Geneva's School of Psychology, is more concerned: "If the US network starts charging it will be catastrophic for us - though if things move slowly we'll be able to work something out. As a small unit, if our access to large organisations' sites were restricted we'd lose our level of competence."
UK government representatives will say only that "there are some interesting issues to probe". One of these, McLoughlin says, is whether JANET will also move to charge for volumes of data transmitted.
There has been concern that charging for volume will kill mailing lists. These may be the most primitive form of communication on the net, from a technical point of view; but in many ways they are intellectually the most evolved.
But Steve Wolff, director of the NSF division of networking and communications, predicted last year that the market would ensure flat-rate charging survived.