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September 29, 2006

Colleges and Skype [7:30 am]

Skype Skirmishes on Campus

But as Skype expands its reach, some colleges are cracking down, raising questions about a built-in feature that can turn a Skype user’s computer into a relay station, or “node,” for other users, eating a college network’s bandwidth by opening it to serve as host to external connections. San Jose State reached an agreement with Skype to restrict the program’s relay functions this week, becoming the latest in a series of universities to consider limiting or discouraging the program’s use.

“The contentious part about Skype is of course the relay function,” said Kevin Schmidt, campus network programmer at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which banned use of Skype anywhere on its campus other than dormitories last January. Skype’s licensing agreement requires that a user grant the peer to peer program access to the user’s network. “If you’re installing this software, you’re granting use of bandwidth to an outside party. That simply can’t happen,” Schmidt said. Upon implementing the ban, he added, network speeds at UC Santa Barbara noticeably increased.

[...] But the campus fight over Skype has attracted the most attention at San Jose State, where campus officials recently backed off from an announced ban on the administrative network in response to faculty objections. The university had planned to institute the Skype ban — which would not have affected dormitory or library computers — September 14, citing similar concerns to those expressed elsewhere: that Skype’s relay function opens the network to non-university business and that use of Skype “exceeds incidental personal use.”

[...] In addition to letting penny-pinching students make free long-distance calls and potentially reducing business costs for colleges, Skype also serves a crucial academic function, said Steve Sloan, who teaches a class in new media at San Jose State. Sloan uses the program in working with students and in collaborating with educators from across the globe. “Skype is like a common ground, kind of like ‘http’ is a common ground for the Web,” said Sloan, who is in the midst of setting up a Skype call between his students and the author of an assigned book. “In my opinion, not using Skype puts us at a potential competitive disadvantage to other universities, especially as universities are increasingly having to compete in a flat world,” Sloan said.

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