PBS To Sell 'Significant' Satellite Space to Educators

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WASHINGTON--The Public Broadcasting Service plans to sell educators "significant capacity" on a communications satellite scheduled to be launched in 1993, an initiative that could severely undercut a rival proposal to dedicate a satellite to educational use.

For some time, PBS has planned to make space available on transponders it has purchased on Telstar 401--which is being built by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company to replace an existing satellite.

But a spokesman said late last month that the rapid refinement of a technology known as digital compression will allow PBS to at least quadruple the signal capacity of the transponders.

The new technology, which compresses the bandwidth of broadcasts so that a satellite can simultaneously handle more at one time, also will allow the Telstar to transmit both video signals and computer data. Moreover, it can do so at approximately half the current $400-an hour rate of conventional satellite transmissions, said Sandra H. Welch, executive vice president of education for PBS.

And schools that purchase relatively inexpensive receiving dishes called V.S.A.T.'s, or Very Small Aperture Terminals, will be able to communicate directly with the satellite as well as with other users on the ground.

PBS also plans to equip each of its 347 member stations with a V.S.A.T. dish, which virtually any school will be able to access through conventional telephone lines.

"For the first time, we're going to have a national infrastructure for two-way, interactive distance learning," Ms. Welch said.

Challenge to EDSAT?

The PBS announcement potentially could preempt a proposal by the EDSAT Institute--a private, nonprofit corporation based in Washington-to create a national educational-telecommunications authority that one day might oversee the operation of a satellite dedicated to educational uses.

Throughout the summer, EDSAT held a series of regional meetings to document the demand for access to existing and proposed satellite transponders among educators and to drum up support for a national consortium among distance-learning and educational broadcasters.

EDSAT hopes this fall to complete a business plan incorporating several alternative methods of financing and operating a satellite dedicated to educational use, thereby laying the groundwork for developing a satellite-based "telecommunications highway" for educators.

Addressing a regional meeting last month in Salt Lake City, Jack D. Foster, Kentucky's secretary of education and humanities, who is helping to direct the national campaign, said the project was expected to reach a "make or break" point this month.

A decision to move forward could be announced by mid-October, possibly during a teleconference linking the sites of the seven regional meetings.

"This is an action project. This isn't another study," Mr. Foster said. "We're here to do some business, if We Can."

While the PBS proposal would seem to obviate some of EDSAT's aims, Shelly Weinstein, EDSAT's president, argued that industry exports and educational broadcasters who spoke at the regional meetings were divided on whether digital compression will actually reduce costs for educational users.

She also said that the current lack of an industry wide standard for digital compression could limit the universal application of the PBS equipment.

"We know that the education sector, when it comes to technology, has been taken down ill-begotten paths before," Ms. Weinstein said.

Use of Existing Satellites

The EDSAT initiative grew out of a notion championed by Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson of Kentucky and some of his colleagues during the 1989 national education summit to dedicate a satellite to educational use.

Mr. Wilkinson later discussed the idea with President Bush, and persuaded the National Governors' Association to support the concept of"a cooperative effort between the federal government, the states, and the private sector" to dedicate a satellite to educational and other "public purpose" uses.

Mr. Wilkinson, under whose administration Kentucky issued satellite dishes to every school in the state and spent $50 million to develop educational-broadcasting studios, also persuaded EDSAT to perform a feasibility study of the proposal.

But the short-term solutions that EDSAT appears to be considering focus on acquiring guaranteed access to transponder time on existing commercial satellites, rather than on building and launching a satellite.

Successfully brokering and managing time on leased transponders will help to demonstrate the strength and resilience of the market, EDSAT spokesmen argue.

It could also encourage potential financial backers--including the federal government--to help underwrite the approximately $170- million price tag of building and launching an education satellite, they added.

But Ms. Welch, who is familiar with the EDSAT initiative, was skeptical that other entities could rival PBS's expertise in managing a national information network. "At this stage, I just don't believe that [EDSAT] could beat what we have to offer," Ms. Welch said. 'Fragmented Market'

A study released by EDSAT last year argues that sufficient demand exists nationwide among educational users at all levels to support development of a dedicated satellite.

According to the study, the "highly fragmented market" for satellite time includes at least 111 educational users, just 20 of whom it expected to spend a total of $45.5 million to acquire satellite time during the 1990-91 school year.

The firm further argues that because there is no centralized system for purchasing satellite time, educational users often must pay higher rates and accept whatever time satellite vendors are willing to sell them.

Speaking at the Utah meeting, Ms. Weinstein argued that there is a growing consensus among educational users to put "ourselves in the position where we control" a satellite.

"If there's anything that we've picked up from these hearings, it's that people want [to pay] a consistent rate" for transponder time, Ms. Weinstein said.

But critics of the EDSAT proposal counter that new technologies-such as those to be employed by PBS could vastly increase the capacity of existing satellites and reduce any perceived shortages, thus increasing competition and easing pressures to increase prices.

Other initiatives, such as "Galaxy Classroom," a pilot project by the Hughes Aircraft Company to beam satellite programming into K-6 classrooms at no cost to taxpayers, could further complicate the market.

And even though the new PBS satellite is not scheduled to become operational for almost two years, Ms. Welch said that she already has begun negotiations with educational broadcasters in several states-including South Carolina, Nebraska, and Kentucky--to conduct pilot projects that use the new technologies on the existing PBS satellite.

Several Options

Meanwhile, in Baltimore last week, more than 300 distance- learning and educational programmers gathered for the last of the regional EDSAT forums. The meeting also drew representatives of PBS and of the national teachers' unions and other groups.

The participants heard Mr. Foster of Kentucky lay out some short term service options the group is considering.

Under one proposal, EDSAT would assume a loan on a satellite already under construction by an unnamed vendor, but unneeded by the original purchaser.

Mr. Foster said that EDSAT Officials seeking a federal guarantee for that loan have bypassed members of the House and Senate education committees, but have met with qualified success in discussions with key members of the Congressional science and technology committees.

Under a second option, another unnamed vendor might donate to EDSAT a satellite now under construction. A third vendor has discussed allowing educational users to take over an existing lease on a satellite that a corporation no longer wants to operate.

The regional meetings also served as a forum to discuss a previously published proposal to establish a nonprofit governance beard as the first step toward guaranteeing educational access to satellite transponders.

The "National Education Telecommunications Organization," as it would be called, is conceptualized as a membership organization of distance-learning and educational broadcasters that each would have equal rights to use programs transmitted over the common system.

The organization's board, composed of "nationally prominent" political and technical authorities, would serve as an oversight body for a separate corporation that would employ individuals with the experience to operate the satellite.

Ms. Welch said that while many of EDSAT's concerns about access to satellite time might be addressed by the PBS project, a scenario in which the proposed N.E.T.o. would act as a broker to obtain time on the PBS satellite for large numbers of small-scale users was possible.

Concerns about equitable access to satellite time were prominent at the Utah meeting. Many participants argued that if time were to be allotted only on the basis of which organizations could pay the most, then the N.E.T.o. would serve no useful purpose.

"If this is going to be market-driven, we may as well fold this meeting up," said John K. Hill, general manager of KLVX-TV, a PBS affiliate in Las Vegas. "We can't play with those other kids back East; we don't have the volume."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 21

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as PBS To Sell 'Significant' Satellite Space to Educators
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