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'E-Rate' Telecom Discounts for Schools Detailed

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Washington

The Clinton administration unveiled details last week of its proposed framework for linking the nation's schools and libraries to the information highway.

Under the administration proposal, all K-12 public, private, and parochial schools, as well as public libraries, would receive a basic package of services for free.

The companies providing the services would be reimbursed from a fund set up for that purpose. Money in that fund would come from taxes on long-distance telephone service.

The details emerged during a public hearing here at the offices of the Federal Communications Commission, before the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service.

The board is to advise the FCC on Nov. 7 about how the commission should compel the telecommunications industry to provide affordable modern services to all schools and libraries, rural health facilities, and homes in rural or impoverished areas. The goal is to provide those services without stifling competitive pressures that can lower prices and improve service, said Susan Ness, an FCC commissioner and a member of the joint board. The FCC must adopt a final plan by the spring.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 included language intended to ensure affordable access to communications services for schools and libraries. Federal regulators now must hammer out the details.

Competitive Bidding

According to the administration's plan, institutions opting to use services not included in the basic package would receive a credit that they could apply to purchase other discounted telecommunications services.

The companies providing the free and discounted services would not absorb the costs alone but would be reimbursed from a universal-service fund, the same mechanism that is already used to subsidize universal telephone service.

The amount of that reimbursement would be set by a process that would include competitive bidding among providers. Ultimately, business and residential customers would foot the bill.

The administration's sketch of the basic education, or "E-rate," package for schools and libraries includes the capacity to transfer electronic data at a rate of up to 1.5 million bits per second, plus Internet access including electronic mail and the World Wide Web, as well as all installation costs and monthly charges for those services.

Special and advanced packages would also be available to schools and libraries at discounts reflecting the "best available commercial rate or the economic cost" for the services. Schools and libraries in low-income or high-cost areas would receive even greater discounts.

Responding to board members' questions, administration officials offered a few more details.

The determination of which schools fall into low-income areas might be based on student qualification rates for the federal school-lunch program or Title I, said Larry Irving, an assistant secretary in charge of telecommunications at the Department of Commerce. But libraries might require different criteria, such as area census data.

Mr. Irving emphasized that the administration would work with the board to consider these and other alternatives.

Pressed to supply cost estimates, Mr. Irving suggested that wiring schools and libraries to the services alone would cost $2.5 billion, including $1.5 billion for high-speed lines and an additional $1 billion in infrastructure for low-income or high-cost areas. Paying for equipment installation and the ongoing services would cost much more, though Mr. Irving said he couldn't provide a figure.

'American Tradition'

Although a nationwide consensus seems to have formed that schools and libraries should be given inexpensive access to certain telecommunication services, many differences on key details remain. The telephone industry has urged specific limits on the types of discounted services to be provided and on the size of the universal-service fund.

By contrast, the federal government advocates setting broad educational goals, while letting states and school districts choose specific services--placing no cap on the fund as long as the future needs are unclear.

Frank Withrow, the director of learning technologies at the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, said the administration plan drew many ideas from a coalition of education and library groups that has sought to influence policy on the issue. Mr. Withrow is one of the founders of that coalition. ("School Groups Join Forces in Quest of Telecomm Discounts," Oct. 2, 1996.)

Members of the joint board are far from united on the specifics, Reed Hundt, the chairman of the FCC, hinted in an interview last week. He said a majority of the joint board does not support as broad a program to wire schools as he would want.

Perhaps aware of the discord, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley urged the joint board to "do some breakthrough thinking." Mr. Riley, speaking by a teleconference from San Diego, urged the board members to view the issue "through the eyes of teachers, parents, and students" who face a rapidly changing world.

Noting that schools and libraries are already making huge investments in technology, he reminded the board that "the proposal advances the long-standing American tradition of providing free education and free access to libraries to every American child."

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