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Texas Law To Ease School Access to Telecommunications Services

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Schools in Texas will be able to gain access to the global Internet computer network and other telecommunications services at preferential rates under a new law that takes effect next month. September.

The law gives the state's telephone, cable-television, and cellular-communications companies greater freedom from government regulation. In exchange, they must contribute a total of $150 million each year to a fund that will be used to wire public and private schools, libraries, and other public-benefit institutions for telecommunications access.

The measure, signed into law earlier this summer by Gov. George W. Bush, also requires the phone companies to provide service to schools at fixed percentages above the actual cost of materials and labor.

Most educational-technology experts agree that one major barrier to wiring classrooms for access to the Internet and other electronic networks is that schools are usually charged costly business rates for telephone and telecommunications services.

Although not required to do so by the Texas law, some phone companies in the state, such as Southwestern Bell, have promised to make toll-free access to the Internet available to educators and librarians in communities served by the company.

Access the Issue

The law represents an important milestone for state policy on educational telecommunications.

The affordability issue addressed in Texas also is a vital concern to educators nationwide who hope to influence legislation now before Congress that would deregulate the telecommunications industry.

For example, the U.S. House leadership is expected to bring HR 1555, its deregulation bill, to the floor next week. Late last week, some education groups were attempting to amend the measure to guarantee schools "affordable" access to telecommunications.

Although some educators argue that schools will become "information have-nots" without such affordability guarantees, conservative critics contend that codifying a guarantee of reduced rates for one group amounts to creating a subsidy that increases costs for all users.

But Connie Stout, the director of the K-12 Texas Education Network, asserted that the new state law helps make the case that the federal government needs to insure a uniform standard of access nationwide.

"So many of our states are really doing individually what we need to do nationally," Ms. Stout noted. "What we're seeing is a continued polarization among different schools, different communities, and different states' policies toward access to information. We have to think broadly of the United States as a community as a whole and set our policies accordingly."

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