University network administrators are alarmed at plans to introduce usage-based charges on the national academic network JANET within a year.
Malcolm Read, secretary of the funding bodies' Joint Information Systems Committee, wrote to IT directors on September 22 of "the probability of the JISC having to raise additional funds for international links from August 1 1998". JISC proposes to charge institutions for the volume of data which they ship across the Atlantic.
Dr Read said that JISC policy is to charge for "scarce resources" and that "at the moment JANET's transatlantic link is the only identified scarce resource". He expects the charging formula to be based on the volume of incoming data, above a threshold representing use of the existing 45 megabit per second transatlantic link.
On the assumption that JISC needs an extra Pounds 2.5 million for international connections in the financial year 1998-99, typical universities will pay Pounds 10,000 to Pounds 40,000, but Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh would face bills of Pounds 100,000 or more.
Alistair Chalmers, ex-chair of the JISC Advisory Committee on Networking, attributes the move in part to "a Zeitgeist feeling that the block provision of networking is a Sixties welfare thing".
Since JANET was founded in 1989, its costs have been top-sliced from the funding councils. Dr Read said that the funding councils have decided not to increase top-slicing, and charging by volume of data "gives universities an incentive to control their usage . . . by investing in local caches (of data frequently requested from the United States), or by investigating who is using the link - and student use."
At the University of Edinburgh Computer Service, Richard Field described the proposal as "the thin end of a steep wedge - within one or two years what else will be charged for?" He predicted that departments would want to know how much of the extra charge results from their activity, and expressed concern about the increased record-keeping required.
"Swallowing a Pounds 100,000 bill is not the way the university does things," he said.
University managers argue that it would be difficult and expensive to meter departments' Internet usage. David Wallace, vice principal of Loughborough University, said: "I have no way of charging the faculties or the users."
Dr Field has even considered leaving JANET. "If the bill rises to Pounds 500,000, we might say that we didn't want to be part of this service any more," he said, "though you would have to spend a lot to equal JANET's quality of service."
Universities running services for the entire academic or wider community face particular problems. JISC has promised to "address the issue" of Imperial College's estimated Pounds 0,000 bill incurred by hosting the SunSite archive and cache.
Asked whether such services would be forced to exclude non-academic users, Dr Read replied: "Not so long as they can raise the funding."
Geoff Maslen writes: George McLaughlin, who heads the AARNet management team for the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, has been invited to Britain to explain how Australia's charging system works.
UKERNA, the company which manages JANET, has asked him to address university information technology directors at a networking strategy workshop in Leeds on December 17.
Mr McLaughlin argues that the Australian system does not require an army of accountants or managers "as some British directors believe''. He points out that his team actually consists of "one and a bit people''.
"We've had colleagues from UKERNA and JISC come out here and they've been very interested in the fact that not only do we on-charge the universities but we do it in a very resource efficient way,'' he said.
"They've seen what we do and have tried to sell the idea back home without much luck so they've asked me to go and explain how we do it and persuade the directors that their fears are unfounded.''