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Bill Aims To Tap Educational Benefits Of Fiber-Optic Telecommunications

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Washington--Citing the educational benefits of fiber-optic-based telecommunications, two senators have introduced legislation that would call on the nation's telephone companies to develop a national fiber-based network by early next century.

"For large rural states like Montana, and for inner-city school systems struggling with limited resources, the impact on education could be dramatic," according to Mr. Burns.

Fiber-optic cables consist of a bundle of hairlike glass rods through which information is transmitted by pulses of laser light. ,

By focusing the light pulse across the spectrum, an almost unlimited amount of information can be transmitted over the fiber-optic cable without the resistance and loss of image quality associated with existing copper cable.

And while the cost of fiber-optic cable has now reached a point where it is comparable to copper wire, replacing the infrastructure of copper that now serves most homes,schools, and businesses would cost billions of dollars.

Aides said the measure sets 2015 as a target date for completing the network because that is the same year in which Japanese officials propose to complete a similar venture.

In exchange for expediting the con version to fiber-optic wire--a change the telephone companies argue is an inevitable, but long-range, undertak ing--the bill would allow the phone companies eventually to provide 25 percent of the television programs carried over the network. They now are forbidden to offer such services.

The measure is the latest legisla tive volley in a continuing battle over the right to offer programs that has pitted the nation's cable television companies against the regional Bell operating companies, or "telcos," that , were created by the divestiture of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in the early 1980's. The telH cos argue that by offering program ming, they could underwrite the costs of rewiring, while the cable compan ies counter that the phone companies have unfair access to private homes.

The competition has spilled over into the public schools as both sides have begun to provide an increasing range of trial services and educa tional programming as tokens of their corporate citizenship. (See Ed ucation Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

The debate has been particularly heated in Iowa, where legislators who supported a multimillion-dollar, state-run fiber-optic system that would serve education were opposed by telephone-industry lobbyists, who argued that the private sector could undertake the project more cheaply by reconfiguring copper wires. (See Education Week, Jan. 23, 1991.)

The new Senate bill is a modifica tion of legislation proposed last year by Senator Burns, which had been strongly opposed by the cable indus try. But Mr. Burns said he drafted this year's version in consultation with representatives of the industry.

Senator Gore also is a sponsor of a separate, but related, piece of legisla tion, now awaiting debate on the Sen ate floor, that aims to increase compe tition among cable-televison companies and to allow local authori ties to regulate cable-TV rates.

No date has been set for a hearing on S 1200, but a companion measure is scheduled for a hearing in the House late this month.

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