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States Map Out Their Digital Futures

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While debate rages on Capitol Hill over how to regulate the booming telecommunications industry nationwide, a number of individual states are moving ahead on developing digital networks to serve education.

Iowa, for example, has spent roughly $100 million to develop a state-owned fiber-optic network that links one high school in each of its 103 counties. Yet, when legislators there learned it would cost at least that much again to extend the network to additional schools, they balked, and chose instead to lease lines from private companies.

Similarly, lawmakers in North Carolina were shocked early last year to discover that millions of dollars that had been set aside to purchase the hardware for a network of pilot schools linked to a state-owned fiber-optic network had instead been spent to cover telecommunications fees.

To better coordinate their efforts, state networking representatives met this summer in Austin, Tex., to discuss the development of the National Information Infrastructure. As a result, the U. S. Education Department's Southwest Educational Development Laboratory is developing a state-by-state inventory of networking plans and financing schemes. David Foster, a researcher who is overseeing the project, finds that telephone companies are aggressively attempting to sell services to schools and to count educators as allies in upcoming regulatory battles.

Federal Action

At the federal level, meanwhile, the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics plans this spring to release a comprehensive report on the state of precollegiate technology.

And an alliance of five influential education groupsincluding the National School Boards Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers--last month urged the Federal Communications Commission to act on an earlier request to help schools pay for new wiring. The groups asked that the $300 million a year that long-distance firms must pay local phone companies for access to their lines be earmarked for educational infrastructure.

"Funding proposals or credible plans to connect schools and libraries to the N.I.I. do not exist," argued Keith Geiger, the president of the National Education Association, an alliance member.

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