Ruling Seen Easing Telecommunications to Schools

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WASHINGTON--A decision by the Federal Communications Commission to allow telephone companies to transmit television programs is a major step toward providing new telecommunications services to schools, according to industry spokesmen.

The commissioners late last month unanimously endorsed new rules that would allow telephone companies to enter the video market by offering "video dial tone" service.

The ruling means that telephone companies would be allowed to package and transmit, though not produce, video programs for transmission over telephone lines. The new rules, which are likely to be formally adopted within a year, greatly strengthen the competitive position of the nation's regional telephone companies in their ongoing competitive struggle with the cable-television industry for access to the lucrative home video market.

That battle has spilled over into precollegiate classrooms in the form of numerous pilot projects and initiatives designed to demonstrate the benefits of the competing technologies in distance-learning and other educational applications. ('See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

David Kandel, a spokesman for Ohio Bell which has embarked on a distance-learning project that connects three elementary schools with Ohio University's college of education by fiber-optic cables--described the F.C.C. ruling as "a step in the right direction" in the telephone industry's drive to extend its influence.

But he also pointed out that numerous hurdles remain before the telephone companies, or "telcos,"can take full advantage of the change.

Prime among them are restrictions in the 1984 Cable Television Act that prevent phone companies from acting as producers in the cable business.

Transmission Upgrade Needed

However, Mr. Kandel noted that the F.C.C. ruling, coupled with a recent ruling by a federal judge that will permit the telephone companies to offer "information services" over telephone lines, could vastly expand the telcos' potential markets.

Analysts also agreed, however, that before consumers, including schools, could tap those new services, the telephone industry would have to spend billions of dollars to upgrade all existing copper transmission lines to fiber-optic cables.

Such a "broad-band network" would allow the telephone companies to transmit vast quantities of video and computer data in addition to voice over the hair-thin glass fibers.

"The vision that our industry has is that one day we would be able to bring to this country a fully deployed broad-band network," Mr. Kandel said. "With that technology, the possibilities for educational applications are virtually limitless."

While such an upgrade is all but inevitable, the industry argues, it could take as long as 50 years to complete, unless the telcos are allowed unfettered competition with the cable indnstry to underwrite the costs.

One effort already under way in the Congress serves that end.

Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, has introduced a measure that encourages the industry to complete the conversion by early in the next century--and emphasizes the need to serve schools as early as possible--in exchange for the right to produce video programming.

The F.C.C. ruling "actually strengthens the case for the bill" said Bryce Dustman, a spokesman for Mr. Burns, by "highlighting the need" to expedite the upgrading.

The bill, S 1200, is scheduled for a hearing early next year.

Vol. 11, Issue 10, Page 9

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