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Cable Companies Say They'll Bring Internet to Schools

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A pledge by cable television companies to give nearly all public schools in the nation free basic Internet access will also benefit the highly competitive industry, company officials hope.

The offer stems from the industry's hopes of "doing well by doing good," said Gary Rowe, a senior vice president of Turner Broadcasting Inc., a leading provider of cable programming.

The cable companies are on the verge of a high-stakes battle with the telephone industry to sell advanced telecommunications services to the public.

"It's in the industry's best interest to point out the advantages of the cable modem" and the quality of educational programming available on cable, Mr. Rowe said in a telephone interview from the company's Atlanta offices.

By offering schools free access to the Internet computer network, cable companies hope to prime the pump for sales of similar services to homes and businesses. "We're hoping, as are the telephone companies, to be one-stop shopping for video and telephone services--that's the game plan," said Mike Smith, the director of field communications for Tele-Communications Inc. in Denver.

Image-burnishing, then, explained the gala event in July to unveil the industry's pledge. Hosted by the National Cable Television Association in Washington, the gathering featured speeches by industry chiefs and government leaders alternated with infomercial-style testimonials from educators, beamed by satellite from across the country.

65 Counties First

Educators hailed the offer, but the cable industry's image undoubtedly shone brightest in the 65 counties picked to receive the gift first. Sixteen cable companies promised to install the high-speed Internet service to about 3,000 public and private schools in those areas around the country within the next 12 months.

Other communities will wait longer--in most cases years, if not decades, industry observers said. Fulfillment of the pledge will require massive spending on fiber-optic cable and other upgrades to the industry's infrastructure, and could depend on the commercial prospects for advanced cable services, according to the cable group.

At the news conference, Reed E. Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called the pledge "a catalyst for a special kind of competition" between the cable industry and other telecommunications providers to bring tech-nology to schools.

In fact, telecommunications companies such as the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. already have promised to spend millions to help connect schools to the information highway.

Mr. Hundt added his hope that these services might be extended directly into classrooms. The cable industry's commitment is only to provide a single connection to each school.

Digital Drag Race

The media event featured a demonstration pitting the cable modem against the phone industry's speedy "integrated services digital network," or ISDN, and a standard 28,800-bit telephone modem.

Three computers--each hooked to one of the devices--attempted to download the same detailed photograph from the Internet's World Wide Web. In about three seconds, the cable modem retrieved the photo; minutes later, its competitors were still laboring to assemble the image.

Operating much like standard computer modems, cable modems reach data-transmission speeds of up to 10 megabits per second--hundreds of times faster than even ISDN--because they are designed to take advantage of the data-carrying capacity of coaxial cable, said Wendell Bailey, the cable association's vice president for science and technology.

The cost of the devices--around $500--should drop substantially after industrywide technical standards are agreed upon later this year, Mr. Bailey said.

The cable modem's speed could allow educational applications via the Web that are far more data-intensive than is now possible. It would also reduce classroom "fidget time" spent waiting for Web graphics to appear on screen, said Lynette Hiebert, a computer teacher in Freemont, Calif.

Yet Steve Kohn, director of education at NYNEX Corp., the New York City-based regional phone company, said the cable modem is unproven commercially and might be too costly for home users.

Mr. Kohn noted that school and home consumers may want to choose from among providers of different communications services. "If you sign up with a cable company, it's a closed system, and you have to use their Internet provider."

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