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PBS Seeks Space For Education on Electronic Networks

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Peter West
Washington

Officials of the Public Broadcasting Service hope to persuade Congress to require the companies developing the advanced telecommunications networks that constitute the national "information highway'' to reserve space on their systems for educational programming.

America's Public Television Stations, PBS's lobbying arm, has drafted a measure that would require the Federal Communications Commission to reserve as much as 20 percent of the electronic networks' capacity for the exclusive use of providers of education programs, without charge.

As envisioned by the lobbying group, the measure would designate public-television and -radio stations, PBS, National Public Radio, state and local governments, and some educational institutions as eligible to use the "educational right of way.''

A.P.T.S. officials testified last month before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance in support of the set-aside provisions.

Markey Bill Eyed

Although they may still ask a lawmaker to introduce the proposal as a free-standing bill, the organization is negotiating with aides in the office of Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., to include them in pending telecommunications legislation.

Mr. Markey is the primary sponsor of HR 3636, a comprehensive measure that would set regulatory parameters for developing a national telecommunciations infrastructure.

"The Markey bill is the fastest-moving [telecommunications] vehicle on [Capitol] Hill,'' one A.P.T.S. official said.

Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis, an A.P.T.S. lawyer, pointed out that the Markey bill already includes some less stringent public-access provisions.

The bill would require the F.C.C. to "reserve the appropriate capacity for the public at preferential rates on cable systems and video platforms.''

But Ms. Mohrman-Gillis noted that those provisions do not guarantee free educational access.

"They are certainly not as comprehensive'' as the language drafted by the public broadcasters' group, she added. "It doesn't necessarily apply to all video distribution systems,'' Ms. Mohrman-Gillis explained. "And it doesn't have the flexibility to apply to future technologies in the way our bill did.''

The issue of educational set-asides on the information highway was emphasized last year at a national forum on PBS's role in the evolving national information infrastructure.

Untapped Potential?

At the conference, held in Austin, Tex., last November, officials complained that Congress and federal regulatory agencies have largely ignored potential educational uses of high-speed data networks even as they have decided to relax some regulations to encourage private companies to build the systems. (See Education Week, Nov. 17, 1993.)

Many telecommunications firms, meawnhile, have announced plans for connecting schools to their electronic networks. (See Education Week, March 2, 1994.)

Critics cautioned at the PBS conference that unless educational set-asides are established in federal law, providers of educational services would be at the mercy of the profit-making companies that are building the digital networks, who could set unreasonable tariffs for the use of their services.

Some even went so far as to advocate the establishment of a separate "Corporation for Public Telecommunications,'' similar to the existing Corporation for Public Broadcasting, that would oversee educational access to fiber-optic, satellite-based, and other developing communications networks.

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