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Telecomm Bill Would Create Panel To Help Insure School Access

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A joint panel of state and federal agencies would be created to help the Federal Communications Commission devise ways to insure educational access to the "information highway," under a bill approved by a House committee that would make sweeping changes in telecommunications laws.

But advocates of educational telecommunications failed late last month to insert any language into the bill, HR 1555, the proposed "communications act of 1995," that would guarantee schools affordable access to advanced digital networks.

Schools now are charged business rates for telephone services, a level much more expensive than is charged for residential service.

"We're after affordable rates for schools, because we're tired of paying business rates," said Dennis L. Bybee, the associate executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, which has closely followed telecommunications reform.

"Some teachers do telephone [networking] from their homes and then take the information to school just because the service is just so much more affordable," he added.

Education lobbyists were apparently somewhat taken by surprise by the speed with which the telecommunications-reform measure moved through the committee process.

The full House Commerce Committee approved the bill May 25--by a vote of 39 to 5--just a few days after it was first discussed at the subcommittee level.

A floor vote in the House is expected later this month.

The committee was sharply divided on whether schools, libraries, and other educational institutions should receive some assurance of affordable rates for telecommunications services.

Sharp Divisions

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., was poised to introduce a measure that would have guaranteed "universal service" to higher-education institutions and libraries.

But Rep. C. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., was prepared to introduce an amendment that would eliminate universal-service provisions entirely.

The outcome was "a standstill," Mr. Bybee said.

"If you compare the original language and the final version," he said, "it looks, on the face of it, like nothing happened, but along the way there was tremendous activity."

The focus for advocates of affordable telecommunications rates for schools now shifts to the Senate, where S 652, the proposed "telecommunications competition and reform act of 1995," may be slated for a floor vote as early as this week.

The Senate measure contains an amendment, sponsored by Sen. John D. Rockefeller 4th, D-W.Va., and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Me., that would require telecommunications companies to provide schools with access to their networks at "affordable rates." (See Education Week, 4/19/95.)

If the Senate acts quickly, a conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate bills could be scheduled as soon as next month.

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