FREE academic access to the Internet is to end.
At midnight on July 31, the meters will start running on data traffic from North America at the point where the cable carrying it comes ashore - on the east coast of England at Redcar.
UKERNA, the non-profit company that runs the JANET academic network on behalf of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), will send out quarterly bills, beginning in November. Institutions will have 14 days to pay, and debtors will face the threat of disconnection.
Web pages, email and other Internet data arriving from North America will be charged at two pence per megabyte including VAT. There will be no charge between 1am and 6am. Sending data abroad will remain free because the circuits are not congested in that direction. The bills will not be itemised in detail, leaving institutions to find a way of recovering the costs from departments or individuals.
Based on past usage statistics, the average institution's annual bill will be about Pounds 15,000, but some heavy users will pay more than Pounds 100,000 a year.
Congestion on JANET's international links is one of the things that charging was meant to prevent. But it may not work. For at least the first year, most universities plan to pay the charges from their central funds, rather than passing them on to departments or individuals. Academics and students will therefore have no direct economic incentive to moderate their Internet usage.
JISC argues that it is for institutions to find a way of making people pay for what they use. Directors of university computing services say this is not easy.
Traffic records can be broken down to the individual computer, but it may require new measures, such as personal smartcards, to determine which individual, or even which department, was using the computer at a particular time.
Jon Duke, chair of the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association, said universities would be hit very unevenly by the "hasty" introduction of charging.
"Some universities will feel obliged to pass on network charges to cost centres, and if this is done in haste, it is likely that patterns in use of the Internet, in particular the Web, will become distorted and curtailed for purely financial reasons," he said.
JISC's move is not unexpected but ignores the Dearing recommendation that accepted the JISC case for tariffs last year but advised phasing in charges from 2000-01 and underlined that the process should not discourage adoption and use of the network.
Ron Rogerson, secretary of the JISC Advisory Committee on Networking, said that the charge represented between 5 and 10 per cent of the cost of the service.
"We have no desire to damage the use of the network but we hope we will encourage greater awareness of what it costs. There is some level of inefficiency out there that will be improved by adoption of well-established technologies."
These would include storage of frequently accessed Web pages and sites on internal institutional computers. He said that JISC also hoped to see more use of the network during its free period to ease congestion.
The committee will hold a series of workshops with users in the autumn to assess the scheme.