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PBS Urges Producers To Buy Time on New Satellite

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WASHINGTON---The Public Broadcasting Service is inviting independent educational programmers to take advantage of the increased broadcasting capacity on a new satellite slated to be launched in early 1993 to reach schools nationwide.

The expanded transmission capacity, PBS officials said, will allow broadcasters to reach schools through the PBS system, making it a "convenient, one-stop source" for educational television.

The officials discussed the technical details of their plans, and opened the avenues for increased participation by independent producers, at a briefing last week at the National Press Club here.

The network is "actively seeking" primarily nonprofit broadcasters to buy time on Telstar 401, a satellite to be built and operated by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, said Sandra Welch, PBS's executive vice president for education services.

Using a $148.7-million congressional appropriation, PBS purchased six transponders on the new satellite to replace an existing satellite that is running short of fuel for maneuvering.

"This investment will pay a dividend for people all across the country," said Bruce Christensen, the network's president.

The announcement effectively places PBS in direct competition with the EDSAT Institute, a private, nonprofit organization that for the last year has been working to establish an independent, satellite- based telecommunications network for education.

Shelley Weinstein, EDSAT's president, said that the PBS proposal does not address the issues of governance and fee schedules that are of great interest to educational users.

EDSAT recently incorporated the National Education Telecommunications Organization to address those issues, she noted.

"The policy issues are larger than the technical issues in this," Ms. Weinstein said.

Unproven Technology?

PBS engineers plan to use a still developing technique called digital compression to squeeze a great deal more signal capacity on the transponders than previously was possible. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991 .)

PBS officials said they hope to be able to broadcast 20 or more educational programs simultaneously without seriously degrading the quality of the transmission. Theoretically, the satellite will be able to handle even more channels.

"Imagine that we had a channel devoted entirely to math instruction," Ms. Welch said. "Then expand that to consider 'What if we had a full-time science channel and a full-time literacy channel?' and so on."

But Ms. Weinstein maintained that the technology is still unproved in commercial use.

Several educational-satellite users raised questions about the viability of the PBS proposal, and its benefits for education, during a congressional hearing on education by satellite held last week by Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana.

Officials from Oklahoma State University and other broadcasters questioned whether PBS will structure its rates and allocate transponder time te favor educational users.

"They are programmers and broadcasters," Ms. Weiustein told the panel. '@heir primary business is broadcasting and they therefore look at [educational institutions] as competitors.

Network officials have already said they plan to equip member stations across the country with Very Small Aperture Terminals--an advanced type of satellite dish---and encourage them te act as intermediaries for schools.

Last week they announced that PBS will begin a demonstration pro- ject next spring involving 15 local public-television stations to test the new technical capabilities. The effort will test a wide range of potential services for schools such as electronic mail and distance learning.

Once completed, the vsAT network will "result in the creation of a national infrastructure to provide cost-effective, two-way distance learning and educational services," Ms. Welch said.

That goal is strikingly similar to plans by the EDsAT Institute.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, is sponsoring a measure designed te streamline the process of sending distance-learning programs the crucial "last mile" from satellite receiving sites te individual schools and classrooms.

Mr. Bingaman said the PBS proposal will address the equipment shortage that has encouraged such commercial firms as Whittle Communications te enter the school market.

Schools "don't have the hardware and I think that explains the success of 'Channel One'," he said at the news conference.

John S. Ritchie, the principal of Pennsauken High School in New Jersey, which uses distance-learning programs produced by the Satellite Educational Resources Consortium, an alliance of the public broadcasters and chief state school officers of 23 states, said he supports the PBS plan.

"This is the kind of interconnectivity we need in schools," he said at the news conference.

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