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2 Proponents of Satellite for Education Present Their Cases to President Bush

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Washington--Proponents of two plans for harnessing satellite technology for education have pleaded their case with President Bush, adding to the evidence that interest in employing such a strategy on a national level is increasing.

It is not clear to what extent, if at all, the President favors either of the proposals, which have been championed separately by Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson of Kentucky and Daniel H. Garner Jr., an Arkansas businessman.

But both men said last week that Mr. Bush appeared receptive to the concept of improving educational equity through the use of satellite-distributed educational programming.

A White House spokesman, while confirming that both Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Garner had made presentations to Administration officials, stressed that "we have given no imprimatur on anything."

Mr. Bush's staff entertained the ideas because "education is a priority for the President," the official said, "and we are encouraging reform of our educational system at all levels."

At a briefing at the National Press Club here last week, Gov. Wilkinson announced that he had reached an agreement with the Washington-based edsat Institute, a nonprofit research group, to conduct a six- to eight-month review of the legal, fiscal, and policy hurdles to launching an education satellite.

Mr. Wilkinson has been spearheading a drive to have the United States design, build, and launch a "public-domain satellite" to transmit distance learning programming. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1990.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Garner, president of the Advanced Communications Corporation, of Little Rock, Ark., has been quietly forging ahead with plans to set aside several channels to carry educational programming free-of-charge on a cutting-edge satellite system that his company plans to launch in early 1993.

Under Mr. Garner's proposal, revenue from services available to the general public over the satellite system would be used to subsidize the educational service.

Mr. Garner said last week that an independent foundation is working to raise corporate donations to distribute to the nation's 125,000 public and private schools and libraries the small antennas needed to receive programming from the satellite.

Mr. Garner also hinted that "some public money" might also become available to aid the project.

In his briefing for educators, industry officials, and the press last week, Mr. Wilkinson noted that educational users currently must compete in the marketplace for increasingly scarce and expensive broadcast time on an aging generation of commercial satellites.

He argued that a national commitment to satellite delivery is compatible with the nation's leadership in the development of the technology and its desire for educational equity and excellence.

"If Luxembourg can have a satellite," he said, "surely education can have a satellite."

Experts in the field have previously questioned the wisdom of such an investment--which Mr. Wilkinson estimated at between $150 million and $300 million.

They have argued that new technologies could increase satellite capacity, and they point to plans by the Public Broadcasting System to launch a satellite in the early 1990's, which, they say, could alleviate any long-term shortages.

But Mr. Wilkinson argued that an independent satellite would give educators freedom from the vagaries of the marketplace.

"Education is one area that must be exempt from the marketplace," he said.

Arguing that the cost estimates are not out of line, the Governor also noted that, currently, states are spending $50 million a year to lease satellite time and that that figure is expected to increase rapidly as usage goes up.

Mr. Wilkinson first approached the President with his plans during last fall's education summit in Charlottesville, Va. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1990.)

Mr. Wilkinson said at the briefing that he was encouraged by his reception at the White House last week.

"They are very interested in this idea," he said. "They said, 'O.K., come back, and tell us how you'll pay for it, and tell us how it would be governed."'

Also last week, Mr. Wilkinson; Jack D. Foster, Kentucky's secretary of education and humanities; and representatives of edsat stepped up their lobbying efforts with the Congress.

They met, among other lawmakers, with Representatives George E. Brown Jr., the ranking Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and William H. Natcher, chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

Backers of Mr. Wilkinson's proposal said planning for the new system is on an "extremely fast track."

"We expect at this time next year we'll be sitting down to talk about some concrete launch date and some concrete act that the Congress and the President is prepared to take," Mr. Foster said.

New Technology Advocated

In the meantime, Mr. Garner has been refining his proposal to help establish his "Your Educational Services Network" and discussing its development with Administration officials, members of the Congress, and national education groups. He met earlier this year with Mr. Bush.

Under the plan, the Foundation for Educational Advancement Today--which is chaired by Wilbur D. Mills, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee--would raise corporate and private donations needed to distribute the small, and relatively inexpensive, dishes required to capture programming from the Direct Broadcast System satellite.

Although some nations, including Germany, Japan, and Great Britain, are already offering limited dbs services, no American satellite company has such capability.

Several American companies, however, have received permits to operate such systems within the decade.

Through a spokesman, Mr. Mills said he envisioned the yes Network as "the state-of-the-art digital open-access educational system in the United States and the world."

Experts argue that dbs technology potentially offers great promise because the digital-transmitting capability allows a range of services, including video images, computer data, high-definition television, and digitally recorded music, to be broadcast.

In addition, because of the refined signal capable under the dbs technology, receiving antennas for the system can be made much smaller and cheaper than those used for current "analog" satellite systems.

Mr. Garner argues that the technical refinements will make it possible for the yes Network to simultaneously broadcast not only hundreds of classroom lectures, but also to transmit computer software, science simulations, and other services that other satellites, such as those proposed by Mr. Wilkinson, cannot.

Many experts are not as sanguine as Mr. Garner about the financial future of d.b.s. technology, however.

The 1990 edition of the "U.S. Industrial Outlook," published by the U.S. Commerce Department, argues that d.b.s. development is hampered in the American market by "lack of programming, the lack of an immediate home market, and a market already being satiated by the widespread availability of [cable television]."

The report noted, though, that the situation could change, given the fact that dbs technology is instrumental in the broadcasting of high-definition-television signals.

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