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FCC Seeks Comment on Setting Service Rates for Schools

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The Federal Communications Commission has begun the process of setting telecommunications rules that will help decide whether schools will be able to afford to enter the information age.

The FCC has requested public comment on how the agency should go about implementing affordable-access provisions of a broad telecommunications-deregulation measure that President Clinton signed into law earlier this year. (See Education Week, Feb. 7, 1996.)

Meanwhile, a panel of three federal judges in Philadelphia began hearing testimony late last month in a case that could decide the constitutionality of a provision in the new law that makes it a federal crime to transmit "indecent" material to children over the Internet. Although many observers argue that the provision is unlikely to affect schools, some experts believe the ban is so vague that it opens schools to liability for student actions. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1996.)

And there could be more federal action on school-technology issues this year. Efforts are under way in both houses of Congress to name bipartisan "working groups" of lawmakers to study the efficacy of technology in the classroom.

President Clinton has stressed educational technology in speeches and in his recently unveiled 1997 budget proposal. The topic was also on the agenda at the education summit held by governors and business leaders last week. (See story, page 1.)

Defining 'Affordable'

The provisions the FCC is working to implement require, for the first time ever, that telephone, cable-television, and other telecommunications companies provide schools with "affordable access" to advanced communications services.

The FCC has been charged with the difficult task of deciding just what constitutes such access for a segment of the market that, until now, has largely been charged the same high rates as large businesses.

"OK, you're a school and you say to your phone company, 'I want to connect to the Internet,"' said Karen Kornbluth, an FCC spokeswoman. "What do they have to give and what price?"

"Who knows, maybe it's going to cost less for a poor school," she said. "But then, what services are included in the discount?"

These issues will be decided by a board, composed of three of the five FCC commissioners, four state communications commissioners, and one state consumer advocate.

The agency has asked for comment on what services should be offered at a discount, how to set discount rates, and what "support mechanisms" will be needed to enable schools and libraries to use the new technologies.

The FCC is accepting comments until April 8, and responses to comments will be accepted until early June.

The Benton Foundation, a Washington-based philanthropy with an interest in educational technology, has requested on behalf of several education associations that the FCC extend the deadline for public comment until May 8.

The joint board, which has not yet been named, also will hold public hearings on universal-service issues on April 12 in Washington.

Comments should be sent to the FCC, Office of the Secretary, Washington, D.C. 20554, with a copy to International Transcription Service, Room 640, 1990 M St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. For more information, call (202) 418-0190.

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