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Venture To Link 25% of Schools To Data Networks

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In a move that could dramatically change the way schools use technology, two leading telecommunications companies last week announced a partnership to link a quarter of the nation's schools to the sophisticated electronic networks they are building.

If completed, the proposed plan will provide millions of students and teachers with free access to the much-publicized "information superhighway.''

The Bell Atlantic Corporation, one of the seven regional telephone companies, and Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable-television concern, made the announcement at a joint press conference in Los Angeles.

The companies plan to offer the service, dubbed the "Basic Education Connection,'' to all 26,000 public schools in their markets nationwide within five to eight years. Private schools may be added later, company officials said.

Bell Atlantic's market encompasses six Middle Atlantic states, while T.C.I.'s franchises in 49 states include such urban centers as Chicago, Dallas, and Denver.

The companies propose to hook up schools as they retrofit their existing networks with billion of dollars worth of fiber-optic cables.

These "electronic gateways'' will provide students and teachers access to such free services as cable-television programs, data networks, and connections to the Internet, a global network of computer networks.

Commercial services from other companies, such as an on-line information service, could also be offered over the network.

"This commitment to education means that students and teachers will have at their fingertips ... a world of electronically stored data,'' said Raymond Smith, Bell Atlantic's chairman and chief executive officer.

Other Companies May Follow

Telephone companies and the cable-television industry have in recent years offered advanced services to schools in pilot programs, partly as tokens of good will in regulatory battles over the telecommunications market. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

But the new joint venture represents the most significant long-term pledge ever by the industry to serve K-12 education, observers said.

"You're listening to very large corporations make very large commitments,'' said James Mecklenburger, a consultant on educational technologies.

Mr. Mecklenburger and others agreed with Bell Atlantic and T.C.I. spokesmen that the announcement could well spark competitors to follow them into the school market, thereby dramatically changing the way schools use technology.

"It will be, for the very first time, truly interactive [service] and able to reform the archaic institution of the public school,'' said Barbara O'Connor, who until recently served as the head of a California state advisory panel on educational technology.

But Melissa Andrews, a Bell Atlantic spokeswoman, said many details must still be worked out about how the service will be deployed and be used by educators.

"The reason that we're making the announcement is to hear from educators and regulators as to what [services] would benefit the schools the most,'' she said.

Ms. Andrews said the companies may sponsor a series of forums to solicit advice from educators on how best to serve the market.

While stressing the project's long-range nature, educational-technology experts hailed the announcement as a vital first step toward bringing a "critical mass'' of schools into the Information Age.

"It's probably not the 'silver bullet,' but it's a heck of a lot better than most schools have now,'' said Frank Withrow, who is conducting a study of educational access to data networks for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Despite their enthusiasm, however, observers noted that the initiative raises important questions about such issues as the adequacy of teacher training in the use of technology and the equity of access to the machines needed to take advantage of the service.

Companies Seeking Merger

Observers also stressed that the significance of the announcement cannot be divorced from the rapid changes taking place in telecommunications regulation.

Taking advantage of new regulations approved last year by the Federal Communications Commission, Bell Atlantic has announced plans to merge with T.C.I.

That move has yet to be approved by federal regulators. Analysts suggested, however, that a high-profile demonstration of corporate commitment to the public good could help allay fears about the possible monopolistic aspects of the proposed merger.

But Lela Cocoros, a T.C.I. spokeswoman, said each of the companies intends to develop the school connections as part of its network upgrades, regardless of how the proposed merger fares.

"The merger will facilitate and accelerate our plans,'' she added.

Observers noted that the companies announced the new service one day before and in the same city in which Vice President Gore made a high-profile speech on telecommunications policy.

In the speech, Mr. Gore furnished broad outlines of the Clinton Administration's plans for fostering the private sector's commitment to developing sophisticated communications networks.

'A Different Ball Game'

The federal government might be willing to ease regulations on the telecommunications industry if service providers put a priority on wiring public institutions, Mr. Gore said. He cited the Bell Atlantic-T.C.I. venture as an example of the kind of "leadership'' the Administration is seeking.

Ms. Cocoros acknowledged that "it would be a stretch to say that [the announcement's timing] is a pure coincidence.''

But she added that the announcement provided an opportunity for both companies "to drive the message home, in a very aggressive way, that we have been involved in education.''

T.C.I., in addition to supporting pilot educational programs in several states, is a charter member of Cable in the Classroom, an industry association that provides free cable connections and educational programs to schools.

"I think it was very smart of them to capture the media that was already there'' to cover Mr. Gore's speech, said Ms. O'Connor.

But "whatever was motivating them,'' she added,"it was a good thing to do.''

Experts also observed that the initiative is being launched at a time when the Vice President is taking a personal interest in educational access to telecommunications, making high-stakes investments in the K-12 market more attractive.

"All of this makes it a different ball game than it was 15 months ago,'' Mr. Withrow said.

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