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New Ga. Law Creates Telecommunications Network

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Thanks to some deft maneuvering by Gov. Zell Miller, Georgia has enacted a law earmarking $50 million to establish an advanced telecommunications network to link rural schools with urban colleges and universities and interconnect the state's hospitals.

The measure "is perhaps one of the most important and far-reaching acts of my administration,'' Governor Miller said last month after approving the bill.

Mr. Miller signed the bill in a hastily arranged ceremony that observers said was an effort to head off any move by the Georgia Public Service Commission to derail the initiative.

"There may be some controversy about this bill,'' Mr. Miller acknowledged at the bill-signing ceremony. "There may be some members of the P.S.C. who disagree with the way we have decided to use these funds.''

The bill and the potential controversy had their origins in a $174-million payment to a state fund by the Southern Bell telephone company as the result of a ruling in a telephone-rate case.

The public-service commission decided to use the money for several purposes, in particular to upgrade local telephone service to provide toll-free intracounty calls.

That project cost far less than anticipated, however, leaving a balance of roughly $73 million that some commissioners reportedly hoped to retain in a contingency fund.

Before the commission could act--and before lawmakers were tempted to engage in an election-year scramble for a large pot of uncommitted funds--Mr. Miller moved quietly to tack a measure authorizing spending for the telecommunications network onto an unrelated Senate bill.

The measure sailed through both chambers of the legislature with little notice and was immediately signed by the Governor.

Diversifying the Curriculum

Despite Mr. Miller's comments, it was unclear whether any of the five public-service commissioners would have tried to block the plan. Harriet Van Norte, a spokesman for the P.S.C., noted that two commissioners publicly supported the bill and were present at the signing.

The new law authorizes use of some of the $50 million to enable more schools to connect with 42 existing pilot sites in a distance-learning network.

"We have a lot of small high schools, and this is going to enable us to give our children an opportunity to diversify their curriculum,'' said Glenn Newsome, the assistant superintendent for legislative affairs for the state education department.

The measure authorizes the department of administrative services to establish distance-learning sites in rural school districts, probably through the use of fiber-optic cables that transmit information at very high speeds on a beam of light.

The department already has appointed a team to investigate the ways in which precollegiate education might use such a system, although the team has yet to meet, Mr. Newsome noted.

"It's going to require significant planning,'' he added.

The new network is envisioned as a complement to an existing satellite-based service, which the legislature recently voted to upgrade by approving a $3-million measure to purchase a state-owned satellite transponder.

Unlike the satellite system, the telecommunications network will be capable of carrying two-way video signals. Mr. Newsome explained that it will greatly expand not only the potential for classroom instruction, but also for teacher-training programs and even educational programs beamed into individual homes.

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