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Satellite-Space Crunch Seen Impeding Distance Learning

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An impending shortage of space on commercial satellites could force many distance-learning programs off the air, and federally owned satellites should be pressed into service to ease the crunch, an advocacy group said last week.

The National Education Telecommunications Organization warned of an "oncoming telecommunications crisis which will put small education entrepreneurs out of business."

Several factors, including launch failures of replacement satellites, greater demand for satellite space, and higher charges for broadcasting on existing satellites, are forcing educators out of the market for satellite space, N.E.T.O. officials said.

Educators spend about $500 million annually on distance education, and that figure is expected to reach more than $2 billion by the end of the decade, the Washington-based group estimates.

Unlike commercial television networks and other big users of satellite time, which buy large blocks of space on a single satellite, most educational programmers buy small blocks of transponder space on a host of satellites. Transponders are devices that allow satellites to receive ground-based signals and redistribute them to earth-based receivers.

But many large-scale users, pressured by the same economic and technical factors that are plaguing educational broadcasters, have gobbled up the space educators might otherwise use, experts say.

"A massive erosion of the availability of transponder space and a major escalation in its costs are occurring," said Smith Holt, the dean of the college of arts and sciences at Oklahoma State University, a leading provider of K-12 distance-learning programs.

Unused Capacity

Mr. Holt, a N.E.T.O. board member, said that "some education providers have already cut back course offerings for the fall semester, while others are predicting loss of viability within 18 months."

Shelly Weinstein, the N.E.T.O.'s president and chief executive officer, argued last week for help from the federal government. Unused capacity on government-owned satellites, including those owned by the military, should be made available to educational institutions, she said.

The education-telecommunications group, which received much of its start-up funding from the satellite industry, has warned of such shortages for several years. (See Education Week, March 13, 1991.)

Ms. Weinstein reiterated her group's call for the federal government to provide federal loan guarantees to the private sector to support the cost of launching a satellite dedicated to educational use.

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