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Plan To Link Iowa Schools Electronically Sparks Battle

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A proposal to build a fiber-optic network linking all of Iowa's school districts and postsecondary institutions has touched off a bruising legal and lobbying battle between state officials and local and regional telephone companies.

The proposal, which was scheduled to be considered by a key legislative panel late last week, would create an "electronic superhighway" interconnecting schools in a statewide telecommunications web for distance learning.

Backers, including lawmakers who hope to dedicate $30 million in state revenues to the project, champion the proposal as a state-of-the-art refitting and upgrading of Iowa's existing educational-broadcasting system, which they say will meet needs articulated by educators themselves.

But the 18-month-old proposal, which has had a history of legal challenges, escalating costs, and reduced dimensions, faces strong opposition.

Most prominently, the telephone lobby has challenged the state's intent to award a contract for the project, arguing that, for a variety of reasons, the proposed network is a costly and potentially wasteful allocation of resources.

"The legislature has not been apprised of the total costs of fully getting this technology out to every educational center that needs it,'' said Kent Jerome, a spokesman for the Iowa Telephone Association, which represents the state's 154 local telephone companies.

Moreover, observers note, construction of the fiber-optic network would deprive local telephone companies of a market currently worth some $5 million a year.

Educators have mostly stayed out of the current battle, with such groups as the state teachers' union remaining officially neutral. But many say they can think of several projects--including installing regular telephones in classrooms--that they would rather have with the money the state plans to spend on the new network.

A number of states and school districts nationwide are employing fiber-optic delivery systems to provide distance learning, often at the behest of regional and national telecommunications concerns. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

Fiber-optic cables are hair-thin glass rods that convey electronic pulses by means of laser light. Because of the inherent capabilities of the material, fiber--unlike conventional copper--can transmit theoretically unlimited amounts of video images, voice messages, and computer data.

In Iowa's case, the decision to employ fiber dates to the late 1980's, when legislators realized that a number of distance-learning projects were being undertaken independently. That led to concerns that there would be an "overbuilding" of systems, according to Linda Schatz, director of narrowcast telecommunications for Iowa Public Television.

The predominant distance-learning technology in use in Iowa at the time was a short-range microwave-based broadcast system known as Instructional Television Fixed Service. The system was pioneered in the state a decade ago by community colleges and is presently in use at four of the 15 institutions.

But an initial round of bidding on plans to expand the educational telecommunications network made state planners aware that the itfs was an antiquated technology, Ms. Schatz noted.

"All the vendors came and said, 'For what you're wanting to do, the best technology would be fiber,"' she said.

Soon after, officials decided to begin the contract process for a fiber-optic system.

The Iowa project is unusual, however, both because the state proposes to have a third-party contractor build the network and because of telephone-company opposition to it.

U.S. West Communications, a regional telecommunications concern and one of the "Baby Bells," has been a vocal critic of the Iowa plan even though it supports smaller fiber-optic projects in Iowa and other states. The company this month announced a $1.2-million project at the Glendale-Union High School District in Arizona.

When the initial contract for the Iowa fiber-optic project was awarded to a small company based in the state, unsuccessful bidders, including U.S. West, appealed the award. The winning bid was then rejected by a state court.

The state later reopened the bidding. In the interim, however, the Federal Emergency Management Agency became interested in the project's potential for improving emergency communications in the state.

When FEMA further offered to contribute federal funds to the project, the state modified its specifications to reflect the agency's needs.

The state, meanwhile, also developed an interest in using fiber optics to streamline its communications networks, and further modified the proposal.

The new specifications would have directly extended the system to hundreds of sites. The effect was to push the new bids into the hundreds of millions of dollars, causing a rejection of the bids and, some argue, fundamentally altering the nature of the network.

Officials of the Iowa State Education Association, for example, suggest that the proposal in fact no longer has much to do with the schools.

"The educational users are really a minor consideration," said James Sutton, director of policy development for the union. "To sell this on the basis of its utility to education is to misrepresent it."

"The end user hasn't been consulted in the development of this project," he added.

The next major step in the process came late last month, when the state's general-services department announced its intent to award a contract to Kiewit Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of an Omaha firm, to build the first and second phases of a drastically scaled-down network.

The contract calls for the company to wire a single connection to each of the state's 99 counties, as well as to additional sites, for a total of 106 connections at a minimum cost of $76 million.

But specifics of the contract, including price, are still open to negotiation, according to Glen D. Anderson Jr., an administrator with the general-services department.

The third phase of the project--connecting individual schools--will involve a separate bidding process, Ms. Schatz explained.

Kiewit's proposal was challenged, however, by the Iowa Telephone Association during a hearing last week before a subcommittee of the Legislative Council, which was slated to decide last week whether the state can afford the project.

The telephone lobbying group argued that use of new "digital-compression technologies" would enable the state to develop a comparable system more cheaply through existing copper telephone lines.

Representative Kay Chapman, co-chairman of the legislature's telecommunications-oversight panel and a supporter of the fiber plan, sharply criticized the challenge because none of the local telephone companies had bid on the contract.

"Now they're trying to come in and say, 'You did it all wrong,"' she said. "They've muddied waters considerably."

Senator Richard J. Varn, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on education funding and a supporter of the fiber-optic plan, argued that the telephone companies have opposed the proposal because they fear they will lose as much as $5 million in annual revenue if the state develops its own communications system.

"This is of clear benefit to the educational system," he said. "Now, we're actually going to have to fight the telephone companies to get it done."

But some legislators, including Representative Thomas J. Jochum, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, have expressed concern about the cost of the fiber-optic proposal and wonder if the state is ignoring cheaper alternatives.

Others involved in the debate warn that educators are being misled by the promises of the system.

"It's not untypical for the educational community to get excited about the possibility of getting blank checks for technology applications and get way ahead of what the classroom teacher is capable of doing with that technology," said James Pryble, a lobbyist for U.S. West.

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