F.C.C. Allows 'Telcos' To Carry Video Programming

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The Federal Communications Commission has voted to allow telephone companies to carry video programming over their lines, a development that could have a significant impact on the field of distance-learning.

During what Commissioner James H. Quello called a "historic, landmark meeting'' here last month, the five-member panel voted to permit the companies to offer "video dial-tone'' service to their customers.

The decision, which is likely to be challenged by the cable-television industry, will allow the "telcos'' to transmit television programs, a capability that formerly was the exclusive preserve of the broadcast and cable networks.

Alfred Sikes, the F.C.C. chairman, has long supported such a change, arguing that regulatory freedom will spur the telephone companies to replace copper cables with fiber-optic wires that will, in turn, allow them to offer a broad arrange of innovative programming.

The ruling requires the telcos to make their lines freely available to potential customers. New services may include educational applications such as channeling distance-learning programs between remote school sites.

Spokesmen for the telephone industry said it was still unclear whether the commission's ruling would have an immediate impact on schools, many of which are already engaged in distance-learning projects sponsored by the telephone industry.

The cable and telephone industries are engaged in a long-running regulatory and legislative battle over programming rights. The fight has spilled over into the schools, where both have invested heavily in projects designed to demonstrate the relative benefits their respective industries offer to education. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1989.)

Removing Barriers

Telephone-industry analysts say the decision removes barriers that have kept the telcos from replacing copper cables with fiber-optic lines. The hair-thin glass rods can transmit vast amounts of data via bursts of laser light.

William Seekamp, a spokesman for Southern New England Telephone, said the F.C.C. action "is a first step toward a national policy that will encourage S.N.E.T. and other local telephone companies like ours to participate in the video marketplace.''

The Connecticut-based regional telephone company implemented a fiber-optic project that links classrooms in three Connecticut schools.

The telephone industry has argued it must win the right to develop television programming in order to underwrite the cost of converting from copper to fiber-optic cables, estimated at between $100 billion and $500 billion.

Mr. Seekamp said the industry will press the Congress to amend the Cable Act of 1984 to allow telephone companies to produce programming and operate cable systems.

Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, has introduced the "communications competitiveness and infrastructure modernization act of 1991,'' which would permit the telcos to produce and distribute video programming in exchange for a promise to wire the nation with fiber-optic cable by 2015.

The measure, S 1200, specifically mentions educational users as priority customers for such a system.

Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, is a co-sponsor of the Burns bill. The proposal also has been endorsed by Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the Democratic Presidential nominee.

Vol. 11, Issue 40, Page 21

Published in Print: August 5, 1992, as F.C.C. Allows 'Telcos' To Carry Video Programming
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