College students face free e-mail withdrawal pains

June 13, 1994|By Sascha Segan | Sascha Segan,Sun Staff Writer

Suddenly, they're cut off from the whole world. Or so it seems.

Students coming home for the summer from college, where they have had free access to a worldwide computer network, often nTC are in for a rude surprise.

Internet e-mail, used for making lunch dates and chatting with faraway friends, is a scarce commodity away from school. For some students, reaching out and touching their friends now will take a big bite out of meager student paychecks.

"I pretty much depend upon it," sighs Leesa Klepper, a junior at Yale from Bethesda.

E-mail is right up there with telephones as a way to communicate at universities, says Dick Atlee, head of the network consulting group at the University of Maryland at College Park. During May alone, nearly a terabyte of e-mail -- the equivalent of a million 200,000-word novels -- passed through the worldwide network.

More than 1,400 U.S. colleges and universities are connected to the Internet, says Dale Johnson of Merit Network, an Internet management company. Those that aren't are mostly two-year community colleges and very small private colleges, says Dan Forbush, a member of ProfNet, an organization of academic Internet users.

At most colleges students can send unlimited free messages anywhere in the world from libraries or computer clusters, and can pay a fee of usually less than $60 a year for sending e-mail from their rooms.

Students at school are much more likely to have e-mail than the average American, Mr. Forbush says. And without access to e-mail, stranded students who want to keep up with their college buddies sometimes acquire a dangerous 20-cents-a-minute habit.

"I'm definitely going to run up some long-distance bills," worries Valerie Threlfall, a junior at Swarthmore who has a summer job at the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development in Annapolis.

Ms. Threlfall says she's stuck, because her department doesn't have e-mail. But some resourceful students find ways to get their fix.

"They come from all over" to sign up for summer e-mail accounts at ClarkNet, a local business that sells Internet access, ClarkNet employee Stephen Balbach says.

While school is out, students from as far away as Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., call ClarkNet's Ellicott City office to sign up for summer e-mail accounts.

Ms. Klepper says her friends have turned to independent local Internet providers such as ClarkNet and Digital Express and big nationwide companies such as America Online and Delphi. But students have been surprised to find that like most things in the working world, e-mail has a price tag attached -- usually around $20 per month.

"The cost is prohibitive," says Kaiti Saunders, a junior at Johns Hopkins University who has forsaken her free e-mail account to go back to her family home in Seattle for the summer. But she still occasionally uses her home computer to call the Hopkins e-mail system in Baltimore to relay messages to friends across the country.

And e-mail is only getting more popular at schools, causing more students to want summer access. At Towson State University, e-mail fever is spreading so fast that "I can't keep up with it," said Joe Callahan, network manager in academic computing at Towson.

"Three years ago, no one I knew had e-mail over the summer, says Ms. Klepper. "Now half of my friends do. Maybe we're just ahead of the times."

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