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Virginia Pioneers Radio Project for Copying Computer Software

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The Virginia Department of Education was to sign a contract last week with a telecommunications company to study how to set up a system for transmitting computer software via radio airwaves.

Educators said that such a system could radically expand the options open to schools in using computer programs for classroom instruction. But one warned that it might create a wider gap between schools and families with the capability of receiving instructional programming for home computers.

Several systems are already in place for sending text over airwaves, but until now they have been capable of handling only small amounts of information.

A California company, for example, last fall marketed a hand-held device that receives stock-market quotations over National Public Radio (npr) airwaves.

The inc Telecommunications study, for which the Virginia education department will pay $12,000, will be completed in three months, inc officials said.

Transmit Computer Programs

With the new system, Virginia schools would be able to transmit computer programs and other information over npr "subcarrier" airwaves without the telephone "modem" hookup now normally used to send information from one computer to another.

(The modem "translates" the computer's electronic information into impulses that can be transmitted through an ordinary telephone line, and a modem on the receiving end turns them back into the receiving computer's language.)

Subcarrier airwaves are the frequencies between existing stations that are approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

With the airwave system, rather than a modem, users would lease a "black box" like a radio receiver to receive the signals and copy them onto computer disks. The cost of leasing would be about $25 per month, plus royalty charges for the commercial software used, said Steven Dull, product manager for inc.

George Hall, the director of telecommunications for Virginia's education department, said schools will be able to receive software and other information "at a fraction of the cost" of modem transmission.

"If you were a teacher and needed a [computer program with a] lesson on linear regression, you could find a school in the state that had it and copy it right away," Mr. Hall said. "And it would be cheaper than hooking up with a modem."

Mr. Dull said the company will eventually move beyond Virginia and transmit information nationwide. From 100 to 120 pbs stations eventually will be linked via satellite, he said.

P. Kenneth Komoski, the executive director of the nonprofit Educational Products Information Exchange, said such a system would have an "enormous" impact on education. The system would not only bring more software to schools, but also would pose the danger of creating competition for them as educational institutions, he said.

"One of the things that this is going to accelerate is the home market," Mr. Komoski said. "Schools have got to do something about this or be dead."

Michael Sullivan, assistant superintendent of education in Maryland, said the Virginia system would serve nationwide as a "prototype for mass delivery of education."

Mr. Dull said large amounts of information, such as computer programs, now can be sent over subcarrier wavelengths because of the great speed with which information can be transmitted.

fcc Has Not Reacted

The fcc has not acted on inc's request to use fm radio subcarrier frequencies. A spokesman for inc said the firm expects to hear from the regulatory agency this spring.

A similar wavelength-transmission project was tested in Seattle, Wash., last week. am-fm station KMPS broadcast two short messages over its main frequency.

The KMPS news director, George Garrett, said the station's interest was in transmitting as much software information as possible "for the public domain." But, he added, information could also be "addressed'' to specific users.

The main problem with such transmission, Mr. Garrett said, is that information can be sent only when the radio station is not operating. Subcarrier transmissions can be sent at any time without interfering with the main station.

inc is a company jointly owned by npr and National Information

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