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Melissa Martyr-Wagner about to pull the plug from a batch of computer equipment.

Melissa Martyr-Wagner, manager of Customer Service and Support at NTS, prepares to pull the plug on the Twin Cities campus modem pool.

Everybody out of the pool

Twin Cities campus prepares for the modem pool's end

By Ben Neeser

Brief, Nov. 28, 2007

When Twin Cities campus employee Karen Prince found out that she would no longer be able to access the Internet at home by dialing into the University's modem pool after Dec. 31, she knew it was time to start shopping around for an Internet service provider (ISP). She used the UMart Web site and purchased service from ipHouse.

"I went to UMart because I know that it provides discounts for University employees, so I thought it was a good place to start," says Prince, who works at Academic and Distributed Computing Services (ADCS). "I purchased from ipHouse because they're a local company and because I've heard that they provide excellent customer support."

Michael Dunham, also of ADCS, has been a modem pool user "since time immemorial." Dunham purchased service from Velocity, another vendor listed on the UMart site. He chose it mainly because of cost, but he also reports that "ordering went smoothly, and [Velocity] support service was swift."

Like Prince and Dunham, about 3,000 other employees on the Twin Cities campus will have to find a new ISP in the next month. That's because they're now using the Internet at home through the U modem pool, which provides up to 50 free hours of dial-up Internet access per month--but that's about to change. The Office of Information Technology (OIT) announced in July that it will decommission the modem pool Dec. 31.

In its heyday, more than 50,000 people used the modem pool every month. Now the number is around 3,000 and continues to drop.

In its heyday, more than 50,000 people used the modem pool every month. At peak times of the day, all 2,000 available telephone lines were full, and callers were often met with busy signals. That was in the mid to late '90s, when nearly everyone was "dialing up" to get on the Internet. Since then, DSL* and cable modems have largely supplanted dial-up as the access method of choice at home. The majority of Internet users are becoming more willing to spend the extra money for faster, more reliable service. The number of modem pool users continues to drop every month. Some of the holdouts are undoubtedly Minneapolis residents waiting for citywide broadband, which is scheduled to be complete in December.

In addition, the equipment that OIT uses to provide the modem pool service is aging. It needs to be replaced, which would cost thousands of dollars. With a declining user base, costs have become harder to justify. The campus will therefore join many other universities that have closed their modem pools.

OIT selected a number of outside vendors to provide residential, fee-based Internet service to U customers at a discounted rate. They looked for vendors that provide outstanding customer support, says Melissa Martyr-Wagner, manager of Customer Service and Support at Networking and Telecommunications Services (NTS). Cost and availability were also important considerations.

Users are free to purchase Internet service from whomever they wish. But OIT recommends looking first into the OIT-approved vendors to make sure you're getting the best deal. You can stick with a dial-up service, or you may choose to purchase cable modem or DSL service. Rather than forcing everyone to use the same service, the new Internet service providers' offerings allow students, faculty, staff, and alumni to select an affordable and well-maintained Internet service based on individual needs. Service can be purchased directly from the selected vendors through UMart.

Even though she'll miss the free service of the modem pool, Prince says she thinks the change is good. She upgraded to high-speed service when she made the switch because she wanted something faster if she was going to have to pay for it.

"I'll use my computer more now," she says. With the modem pool, "it was so hard to do anything. It was just so slow and clumsy."

Dunham laments that he really misses the cheery little songs that his modem made as it contacted the U's modem pool. But, he quickly adds, he "certainly like[s] the convenience of wireless at home and the increased speed."

The thousands of dollars that OIT saves can be more wisely invested in newer technologies--technologies that help bring the University closer to accomplishing its goal of becoming a top-three public research institution.

*Digital subscriber line.

Ben Neeser is a technical writer at the Office of Information Technology.