The Johns Hopkins community has an optional new route for hopping on the information superhighway when away from the university. In an effort to provide reliable, secure and cost-effective remote Internet access alternatives for students, faculty, staff and alumni, the university has negotiated with AT&T to be a preferred Internet service provider.
The Hopkins plan is expected to be operational March 1.
The recently signed agreement--based upon a customized program offered to other colleges and universities, which differs from the company's World Net program--will allow Hopkins affiliates to subscribe to a variety of pricing options, depending on their specific Internet needs. Those who choose to sign up with AT&T can select packages ranging from five to 150 hours of monthly local dial access usage (unlimited access is not available at this time). The standard price plan will be $17.95 per month for 150 hours of Internet use, with a set surcharge for additional hours. Other plans begin at $5.95 a month for five hours. Higher speed ISDN access is available at an additional cost.
The Hopkins-AT&T program will eventually include an option for secure Internet access and communication, dubbed a Virtual Private Network, that is based on a specialized security software and strengthened user-authentication log-in.
Information on the various plans and how to sign up are available on JHUniverse at http://www.jhu.edu/jhisp. However, the individual user's contract will be with AT&T.
According to Stephanie Reel, chief information officer, the need to identify a preferred ISP arose from the increased internal demand for remote and toll-free calling access.
"There has been an explosion in the already huge demand for Internet access by our people when at home and when traveling," Reel said. "We realized we needed to outsource this type of service because we could no longer support the current demand through our internal Internet services and would not be able to meet future demands even with significant expansion."
Existing remote access facilities, such as the Welch modem pool in East Baltimore, have swelled to capacity, Reel said, and technical problems now being experienced would only compound over time. She said the modem pool was originally intended to provide access to Hopkins-hosted computer services, but many of the more than 4,000 people registered with the Welch service use it primarily to access the Internet. The long-term direction of the university is to ultimately discontinue support of the modem pools, Reel said, although the service will continue into the foreseeable future.
Early development of the formal request for a preferred ISP was done by divisional committees headed by Robert Sapp, director of advanced technology and information systems at the Welch Medical Library.
Arthur Heigl, director of Hopkins Information Technology Services' administration & business services, said the university will be providing other options, including free ISPs, but ultimately opted for AT&T being the recommended product based upon the company's "stellar service record," extensive domestic local calling facilities and expansive global network.
Free ISPs, including Alta Vista, FreeI.net and NetZero, are able to adequately support casual or infrequent Internet users, Heigl said, but not the needs of a typical Hopkins user who requires fast and reliable access when working or just Web surfing at home or abroad.
Those on the AT&T plan will have toll-free access from anywhere in the United States, either from a local server or using the company's 800 number, and will have the benefit of a 24-hour help line.
The AT&T plan also gives a distinct advantage to Hopkins personnel who frequently travel, according to Mike McCarty, chief network officer for Hopkins. McCarty said someone traveling in a remote area of the world will now be able to dial a local access number for $4.80 per hour, as compared to potentially exorbitant fees from other ISPs.
"We are convinced that AT&T's international services are the most robust and provide the most access points available," said McCarty, who went on to say that "another related effort involves development of a directory and authentication mechanism for remote users. Once in place," he said, "remote workers will be able to connect to library and domain authenticated resources no matter what ISP service they decide to use."
Ross McKenzie, director of information systems at the School of Public Health, said AT&T's international presence is a distinct benefit.
"The Internet has become a major research tool for all of our investigators. They are constantly using it either to conduct aspects of their research or by using e-mail to communicate with each other," McKenzie said. "But they are not always using reliable services."
McKenzie cited the example of one research team about to travel to Asia that was given a list of 10 local access numbers to connect to the Internet while in the field. However, he said, when the team arrived, only three of those numbers were still operational.
"Many of these networks and servers change hands and so you are never really guaranteed access," McKenzie said. "So the fact that AT&T owns all these international networks is really beneficial for us. This option is going to be a lot cheaper and more efficient than what we have now."
Heigl said AT&T consistently ranks as one of the top two in terms of ISP customer service, so people used to encountering a busy signal when trying to establish an Internet connection might see that annoyance significantly reduced. Although AT&T cannot guarantee instant connection to the Internet, Heigl said the company will minimize the occurrence of busy signals.
Hopkins employees also will benefit from the Virtual Private Network to be made available at a later date. A Virtual Private Network means that an electronic communication can be sent from the originator to the endpoint using encryption mechanisms to protect the information being transmitted. Heigl said a secure network like this is needed for those accessing Hopkins business computer facilities, or perhaps by a physician who needs to access sensitive and private medical information from a remote location.
"By not using a VPN, someone can masquerade as someone else and take part in a communication, even changing the communication's content," Heigl said. "By secure we mean that you can transmit e-mail with a high degree of confidence that no one will intercept your message."
Heigl said registering with AT&T is strictly optional and is not necessarily the best Internet access option for everyone.
"If someone is looking to either change his ISP or register for the first time, we would strongly urge him to consider the AT&T plan, " Heigl said. "However, if your service works for you, by all means continue it. We understand people will want to maintain their same e-mail address and not deal with the potential switching costs. First and foremost, the AT&T preferred provider program is intended to solve access problems and reduce the expansion needs of our modem pools."
A detailed list of all the AT&T pricing options, as well as HITS' reviews of free ISP plans, is at http://www.jhu.edu/jhisp.