Ruckus Network, which distributes movies and music online to colleges nationwide, is expanding access to its ad-supported music download service to any college student in the United States. Previously, Ruckus’ free service was available only to students at universities that had entered into an agreement with the company.

Now, any student with a valid university “.edu” eMail account can use the service to download music to his or her computer free of charge.

The Herndon, Va.-based company aims to boost the rolls of college students who use its service to woo more advertisers seeking to market to young audiences. The company adopted the ad-supported business model about a year ago.

“Free and legal digital music has just become broadly available to the most active and engaged music consumer group on the planet,” said Michael Bebel, Ruckus’ president and chief executive.

The company estimates that several hundred thousand students at more than 100 universities already use its service. Those students can download movies, too, and also benefit from better network bandwidth and download speeds, owing to music and movie file-caching servers placed on the school’s campuses.

Students outside Ruckus’ network of affiliated universities will not be able to download the approximately 4,500 movies available through the service, but they will have access to the company’s more than 2.1 million music tracks, which they can download to their computer free of charge. To transfer audio files to a portable music player, however, users must pay either $5 a month or $19.99 per semester. This portability fee also applies to students whose schools are affiliated with Ruckus.

Ruckus says schools entering into agreements with the company benefit through the placement of caching servers on campus. Because students don’t have to download music and movies remotely from outside servers, the arrangement cuts down on the amount of bandwidth used–and therefore reduces the amount of money the schools spend maintaining their networks. The service itself is free to participating schools; Ruckus generates its revenue through advertising and the portability fees it charges students. It is this ability to have faster downloads that led Princeton University to sign up for Ruckus last fall. School leaders there have no regrets in signing up for the service, despite the company’s Jan. 22 announcement.

“School reaction was in large overwhelmingly positive,” said Rohan Joshi, Princeton’s student government senator and the one who spearheaded the project to get Ruckus on campus. “Though some students who have Macs can’t use it, the overall response has been good.”

Previously, students at universities without an agreement with Ruckus had to pay $5.99 a month to download music from the service and couldn’t move the tracks from their computer.

Ruckus is hoping that students at unaffiliated schools will embrace the service and see the value of legal downloads, said Ruckus spokesman Tim Hurley. “We think this will create some champions from among the student base to really bring [our service] to the attention of administration at those schools and help drive sales.”

Since the new campaign was announced on Jan. 22, a significant number of new members have signed up for the service, said Hurley.

Ruckus came under fire in late 2006 for what some school administrators viewed as questionable marketing practices. The company started a group on the popular social-networking site Facebook, in which a fictional persona named “Brody Ruckus” tried to get students to join the group by promising them details of a “threesome” with his girlfriend and another girl. Ruckus also reportedly sent eMail messages to students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, promoting an agreement with the school that apparently did not exist.

The company attributed these mistakes to an overzealous employee and said it regrets the errors (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6662).