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Penn is ending its free modem pool service and plans to hire an outside Internet Service Provider. About 60 members of the University community gathered in College Hall yesterday afternoon to discuss the future of the Penn modem pool, which will be dismantled over the next two years while reduced-price connections will be offered by from local Internet Service Providers. The forum, hosted by Information Systems and Computing, drew a crowd composed mainly of graduate students, faculty and staff members concerned about how the loss of the modem pool service will impact their jobs and academic careers. Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing James O'Donnell moderated the forum, delivering a 30-minute presentation on the new program and answering questions from the audience. In less than two years, the University will sever ties to its modem pool and develop a cooperative venture with at least one local Internet Service Provider that will charge users a fee. Next summer, the University will begin to phase out the service by charging off-campus students and other modem pool users a fee to dial into PennNet, the University's computing network. On June 30, 2001, Penn will permanently dismantle the system in favor of the ISPs. O'Donnell explained that as computer technology continues to change, the University can no longer afford to compete with the burgeoning ISP business. "We're facing technological obsolescence," O'Donnell said. "Sometime in the near future we need to get out of that business and let others deliver the service for us." Currently, operating the system, composed of 1,080 modems that support over 14,000 users, costs Penn over $1 million annually. Just upgrading the system -- which currently offers a 33.6 kilobit-per-second connection -- to a higher connection speed would cost the University over $1 million. O'Donnell added that officials are exploring the possibility of maintaining and expanding Penn's express modem lines for at least one year after the general pool is dismantled in order to ease the adjustment period for off-campus users. Officials will look to make deals with outside ISPs for both basic 56 kbps modem connections as well as faster technologies, like cable modems and Digital Subscriber Lines, which allow subscribers to use a phone and the Internet simultaneously. Many forum attendees expressed concern about shouldering the costs of an ISP service, even if the service is offered at a reduced price. Sociology doctoral student Julie Kmec, a teaching assistant, pointed out that TAs spend a lot of time online responding to students' e-mails, a responsibility that may be limited by an individual's ability to pay for an Internet connection. "I see a conflict in maintaining the ability to be a good TA and paying for the costs," Kmec said. And Margaret van Naerssen, a part-time faculty member in the Graduate School of Education, suggested that Penn offer to compensate faculty members, graduate students and research assistants who need to dial into PennNet for job-related purposes. "Most of us find it necessary to work from home to keep on top of our work," van Naerssen said. "I feel like this is unfair, and think that there should be some type of reimbursement to pay for this." O'Donnell responded to these concerns by saying that ISC officials are meeting with academic administrators to discuss how best to accommodate the needs of PennNet users. But some of the event's attendees said the benefits of the new program outweigh the drawbacks. "I think it's a good thing to get rid of the Penn modem pool," said Scott Roberts, a computing staff member in the History Department. "I've already ditched it and am getting much better service."

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