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Measures at Odds Over School Access to Telecomm Networks

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Washington

The Senate passed a comprehensive telecommunications bill last week that would guarantee schools affordable access to developing communications networks.

The proposed "telecommunications competition and deregulation act of 1995" was approved by a vote of 81 to 18.

The provisions guaranteeing schools affordable rates for access to networks, endorsed by the senators earlier in their deliberations, were not altered last week. But their ultimate fate is uncertain.

The Senate measure, S 652, is drastically at odds with a commpanion measure approved by the House, HR 1555, which does not address the question of affordable educational access to the "information highway." (See Education Week, 6/14/95.)

The House bill would create a joint federal and state panel to help the Federal Communications Commission devise a rate structure for schools. Under existing practice, school districts generally pay costly business rates for telecommunications services.

A House-Senate conference committee on the legislation could meet by the end of the month, and observers said the education amendment may not survive.

It would require telecommunications companies to contribute money to an existing "universal service fund" that would be used to reimburse companies for education discounts. The Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, R-Kan., reportedly opposes expanding the scope of the fund, which is used now to subsidize rural telephone service.

The Clinton Administration, however, publicly supports the concept of linking all schools to the information highway by the end of the decade and is expected to fight to maintain the educational-access provisions.

The F.C.C. chairman, Reed E. Hundt, has often said schools should be guaranteed subsidized access to cutting-edge communications, and his agency is also closely tracking the status of the education amendment.

An Important Framework

"The stakes are really, really high," said Linda G. Roberts, the technology adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "These services are going to be very, very important to schools. And these provisions are going to have impact for the next 20 or 30 years."

The Communications Act of 1934, the nation's primary legal framework for telecommunications, has remained largely unchanged since the heyday of radio. Efforts to rewrite it have been under way for several years.

Last fall, a comprehensive telecommunications-reform measure was pulled from consideration at the last minute. The new Republican Congressional majority, however, seems anxious to win quick passage of a reform bill.

Meanwhile, several states already have moved to set up telecommunications networks dedicated to educational use.

But advocates say a federal regulatory framework is vital to establishing the seamless communications network envisioned by the Administration.

"No single state is like any other state in the ways that they have organized" rate structures, said Dennis L. Bybee, the associate executive director of the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit organization that has lobbied for the education amendments.

Internet Obscenity Targeted

Meanwhile, the Senate also approved an amendment last week that would ban "obscene materials" from networks such as the Internet. It would set harsh penalties for those convicted of providing obscene materials to minors over computer networks.

"The bottom line is simple," said Sen. Daniel Coats, R-Ind., a sponsor of the amendment. "We are protecting children from indecency, which currently is easily accessible to them in cyberspace."

States and local districts with Internet access have created a variety of policies intended to bar students from access to materials deemed inappropriate.

Opponents of the measure, however, cautioned that the regulation could impinge on First Amendment rights.

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