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Iowa Panel Proposes No Changes In Control of Fiber-Optics Network

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Iowa officials should retain management of their ambitious 3,000-mile fiber-optics network, at least through 2002, a special commission recommended last week.

The Iowa Telecommunications and Technology Commission advised the state to stay the course after considering 10 options, including leasing the network and forming a partnership with private interests, which have complained that the mostly state-run network monopolizes high-tech business in the state.

Schools and libraries, the biggest beneficiaries of the network, have been concerned that loosening state control could balloon costs and limit access.

The three-person panel that oversees the Iowa Communications Network found that major changes would raise legal issues and complicate a $115 million, tax-exempt bond that paid for building the system.

Despite uncertainty about how often schools and libraries will use the system as it enters its third phase of expansion, which began this year and continues through 2000, the commission chose to wait and see.

"This should be off the table until 2000, and then they will look at it later," said Tommy Thompson, the chief of operations for the network.

"They probably made a good decision--there's not enough information now," said Todd Schulz, a lobbyist for the Iowa Telephone Association. "That doesn't take away the possibility of leasing capacity or selling in the future."

The network was designed to bring distance learning to schools and libraries statewide. It has expanded to government offices.

"If they continue their initial focus, we can live with that," Mr. Schulz said. "But there has been pressure to put other services on it at a state-subsidized rate."

Expansion Under Way

A final commission report is expected early next week and will be forwarded to Gov. Terry E. Branstad and the legislature. A short-term management plan must be passed next year.

Mr. Branstad, a longtime supporter of the network, maintains that his highest priority is making sure the system is affordable and accessible.

"The ITT's recommendation will carry a lot of weight with the governor," said Robert L. Rafferty, Mr. Branstad's chief of staff. "He's interested in options, but only as long as there is affordable distance learning for all."

Today, the massive fiber-optics project reaches every county in the state and 50 high schools.

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved the third phase of the project, a $94.6 million plan to bring the network to 478 new schools and libraries by 2000. This school year alone, another 50 schools will be connected to the network.

To appease the demands of businesses, the state will contract for construction of the third-phase connections and then lease that part of the system from private companies. "The legislature did that in response to the telecommunications industry squealing, 'They're taking money away from us,"' Mr. Thompson said.

Schools use the network for services including interactive video and computerized texts.

"The idea is to bring real-world examples to the class and apply principles right there," Mr. Thompson said.

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