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Calif. Firm To Furnish Schools With Data Links

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Officials of Pacific Bell, the largest telephone company in California, have pledged to spend $100 million to provide all 6,500 public schools within the company's service area with access to advanced telecommunications services by 1996.

Representatives of Pacific Bell, one of the nation's seven regional telephone companies, announced the initiative last week at a news conference at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.

Gov. Pete Wilson, Speaker of the House Willie L. Brown Jr., and Acting Superintendent of Public Instruction William D. Dawson also attended the news conference to support the initiative.

The Pacific Bell venture is the latest in a series of proposed efforts by telecommunications companies to include educators in the race to develop the "information superhighway.''

Unlike similar ventures, however, the Pacific Bell initiative will employ "integrated service digital networks'' and copper wires, rather than fiber-optic cables, to extend service to schools until fiber is installed statewide.

I.S.D.N. technology allows voice and video signals, as well as computer data, to be sent over existing telephone lines. While more economical than fiber-based systems, it does not provide as much transmission speed or capacity. It is often viewed as an interim measure by companies working to extend their fiber-optic nets.

'Monumental Leap Forward'

The Pacific Bell venture will give 80 percent of California's public schools, 600 libraries, and an estimated 85 community colleges access to the Internet and other global computer networks and telecommunications services.

It also will allow all of the institutions on the Pacific Bell network to communicate with one another by means of video teleconferences.

Officials said schools could use the video technology in a variety of ways, but primarily to enhance distance learning.

In a teleconference for reporters following the news conference, Philip J. Quigley, Pacific Bell's president, conceded that I.S.D.N. technology does not provide the sophisticated features of a fiber-optic system.

Even so, Mr. Quigley said, the new service would be "a pretty monumental leap forward'' for schools in a state where less than 10 percent of classrooms currently have access to basic telephone service.

"Most California public schools and libraries are at a technological standstill,'' he said. "By offering a [basic] capability to access information from anywhere in the world and engage in interactive distance learning, we will be providing ... an on-ramp to the 'communications superhighway.'''

The Pacific Bell announcement follows on the heels of a public pledge by Bell Atlantic, a Philadelphia-based regional operating company, and Tele-Communications Inc., a Denver-based leader in the cable-television industry, to wire all 26,000 schools in their multistate service areas with fiber. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.)

Experts in the educational applications of technology widely hailed the Bell Atlantic announcement as a first step in bringing schools into the "information age.''

The Pacific Bell initiative, however, appears to address in far more detail many of the most difficult issues of upgrading the technological capacity of the public schools, including the training of teachers and the costs associated with using on-line networks.

Free Installation Provided

Fleshing out some of the details of the plan last week, Mr. Quigley announced that Pacific Bell would:

  • Field "resource teams'' to help schools and teachers make the best use of the new services available on the network. The company also will collaborate with universities and colleges to help insure that prospective teachers receive instruction in the use of technology.
  • Wire up to two rooms within each school. One room would act as a computer lab for telecomputing, while the other would be designed as a studio for videoconferencing.
  • Install its service for free and waive usage charges for one year after installation, pending approval by state regulators.

Pacific Bell will begin in May to wire schools and libraries in the Sacramento and San Francisco areas, said Michael Powell, a spokesman for the company.

Last week's announcement is the first step in a Pacific Bell effort to collaborate with rival telephone and cable companies within California to bring every school on-line by the end of the century, Mr. Quigley said.

"Our goal right now is public schools,'' he said. "But we certainly will be looking for ways to expand the technology to all schools, public and private.''

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