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Del. To Spend $30 Million To Build Fiber-Optic Network for Schools

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The state of Delaware will spend $30 million to build a fiber-optic telecommunications network that within two years will link students and teachers in all its 7,000 public school classrooms.

Legislation signed by Gov. Tom Carper this month will set up a Delaware Center for Educational Technology to oversee the effort. The plan calls for each classroom in the state to have a computer link to the network that will enable educators and students to exchange telephone calls, video signals, and computer data.

In a similar development, the Iowa legislature has approved a controversial proposal to spend about $18 million to begin extending that state's fiber-optic communications network to almost 500 high schools and 100 libraries. The entire four-year project could cost as much as $96 million.

Fiber-optic cables are hair-thin glass rods that can transmit far greater amounts of information much more quickly than traditional copper wires.

Although the costs of the cables have plummeted in recent years, replacing the miles of copper wires with fiber-optic cable is an expense the telecommunications industry has largely balked at paying.

A number of states, including North Carolina, are building state networks that will serve education. Delaware officials, however, say their network will be unique. It will guarantee equity between rich and poor districts, they say, by insuring that every classroom will have at least one connection to it.

The network, Governor Carper said, will "transform the computer into a tool that fosters equality, giving all children, regardless of wealth or background, the computer and information skills they need to be successful."

Controversy in Iowa

Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, meanwhile, could still veto the measure extending the Iowa system. But he has said he supports expansion of the Iowa Communications Network, which currently links 125 sites across the state. Half of them are educational institutions.

The existing I.C.N. cost $100 million to build. While often cited as an example of a pioneering state effort to link schools to the "information highway," the Iowa network also has become the center of roiling legislative controversy.

Critics in the strongly Republican legislature argue that the state has taken on an inappropriate role by building what amounts to a state-owned communications system in competition with the private sector.

"Legislators are concerned that the state government is now the third-largest telephone company in the state after U.S. West and G.T.E.," said one observer said.

Political Perils

Though they have followed the debate in Iowa, officials in Delaware plan to begin work on their system this summer. They hope to finish half the network by the fall of 1996 and the entire project a year later.

Still, it is unclear whether Delaware officials will be able to steer their project clear of the political pitfalls that have surrounded the Iowa network.

Legislators in Iowa have been reluctant to pay to extend the network beyond the state-owned backbone largely because of pressure from small telephone companies, officials said.

In addition to three major private phone companies, Iowans obtain local telephone service from about 125 local exchange companies. Collectively, they form a lobby to be reckoned with.

Although lawmakers agreed to extend the I.C.N. to additional sites by leasing fiber-optic lines from private companies, many of the local companies say the leased lines will be laid alongside existing communications links.

Reflecting the sense that perhaps state government should not be in the business of owning its own communications network, the legislature also ordered the I.C.N. commission to study several options. Among the possibilities are selling the network to the private sector or turning it over to a quasi-public agency similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies electric power in several Southern states.

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