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Educators Want Access to New Digital Communications

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Austin, Tex.

Some schools could find themselves at dead ends on the "information highway'' unless the federal government requires telecommunications companies to guarantee educational access to the digital networks they are building, participants in a recent conference here warned.

Without adequate regulatory safeguards, said David B. Britt, the chief executive officer of the Children's Television Workshop, the long-touted information highway "will not have enough 'off ramps' into our ghettos and into our rural areas.''

At the conference on the future of telecommunications, held Nov.4-5, Mr. Britt and others said that little is being done by the federal government to establish educational "set asides'' or "must carry'' rules for the new networks, partly because the technology is developing so rapidly and a profusion of industry mergers makes it hard to track the market.

The conference, sponsored by the Public Broadcasting Service, was held at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library here, a symbolic setting for public broadcasters.

Many speakers harkened back to President Johnson's signing of the Public Television Act in 1968, which helped launch PBS, as a model for what needs to be done to insure educational access to the new networks.

Others, though, cautioned that placing too great a regulatory burden on the fledging information-services industry could have the unintended consequence of prohibitively increasing costs for those who could benefit most from the new electronic services.

Conceding that his position might be "anathema'' to many at the conference, Harry M. Shooshan, the former chief counsel for the House telecommunications subcommittee, noted that some of the Johnson Administration's Great Society programs similarly may have unintentionally accelerated the development of the urban underclass.

How Much Regulation?

While some regulatory change is necessary and inevitable, Mr. Shooshan said, "I'm nervous about government defining, let alone redefining, 'universal access' for me.''

Despite the sometimes heated debate about the role of government regulation in the information age, there seemed to be a consensus here that new technologies will play a vital role in helping schools meet the national education goals.

"I will say, flat out, [that] there is no way we can achieve those goals for all our children without an increased use of telecommunications,'' said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The meeting featured an array of nationally known figures, many with ties to PBS, who stressed the vital importance of ongoing changes in the communications industry to the vitality of the nation's education and health-care sectors. Lady Bird Johnson, the former First Lady, also attended, adding to the meeting's symbolic status.

But critics argued that the conference had the feel of an elaborate promotional gambit to insure PBS a high profile in the competitive struggle to wire the nation's homes, schools, and libraries.

PBS officials said that while their system will continue to rely on broadcasting as its primary means of distribution, it is developing several products and services that will have significant educational benefits only through access to the new digital networks.

Jennifer Lawson, PBS's executive vice president for programing, said in an interview that PBS is developing vast data bases of reference and other supporting materials from major series such as "The Civil War'' and "The Great Depression'' that could be distributed over a wire-based system to schools, homes, and libraries.

An 'Education Neighborhood'

The development of universally accessible networks "can be a tremendous opportunity for public television,'' Sandra Welch, PBS's executive vice president for education, added in an interview.

But, she asked, "if it's a privately owned highway, what are the tolls going to be?''

She echoed many others who criticized the Federal Communications Commission for failing to establish educational set-asides in its recent landmark "video dial tone'' decision, which permits telephone companies to carry programming into homes.

But some here noted pointedly, if privately, that PBS lobbyists themselves helped kill federal legislation that would have provided loan guarantees to a private venture that proposes to develop a national educational telecommunications network.

PBS officials argued that it is improper for the government to support such a private enterprise.

But despite the setback, the Washington-based National Education Telecommunications Organization is leasing space on a satellite and hopes to launch its own by the end of the decade.

PBS, meanwhile, has touted its plans to create an "education neighborhood'' on Telstar 401, its new, digital satellite, which is scheduled to begin service in February.

But Kay Frances Toliver, a mathematics teacher in New York City's Harlem whose work became nationally known through a PBS program called "Good Morning, Miss Toliver,'' told the telecommunications experts that it might not be so easy to bring teachers into the information age.

"I still don't have a VCR, and I still don't have a telephone, and I still don't have a working phone line in my classroom,'' she said. "So, will someone help me?''

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