Paving the Way for the Highway

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Fresh from briefing reporters about an upcoming multi-billion-dollar auction of the public airwaves, Reed E. Hundt eases into a sofa in his corner office at the Federal Communications Commission to make his case for networking every classroom for the "information age."

"We're talking about auctioning spectrum so that adults can move into the 21st century and global communications," says the F.C.C.'s chairman. The problem is "we have kids in the 19th century in terms of communications tools."

A prep-school classmate and a close friend of Vice President Gore and a law-school classmate of the President and First Lady, Hundt has developed a reputation as an innovator since beginning his five-year stint as chairman of the five-member commission in 1993.

It was Hundt's idea, for example, to auction off the licenses to provide advanced telecommunications services--licenses that once were given away free of charge. The new policy is expected to generate as much as $12.6 billion for the U.S. treasury over the next five years.

He also has made it clear, both in public statements and in behind-the-scenes meetings with industry leaders, that he hopes to leave as a legacy of his chairmanship a regulatory framework that will help fulfill the Clinton Administration's goal of connecting every classroom to the "information highway" by the end of the decade.

"There's a very important point here: I'm talking about classrooms; I'm not talking about wiring schools," he emphasizes. "I'm not talking about building a coaxial wire to a library and stopping there. I'm not talking about building a telephone line to the principal's office so that he can take phone calls."

Legislation before the last Congress would have charged the F.C.C. with setting rules to insure that schools and libraries have affordable access to telecommunications technologies. The commission would have been required, for example, to develop regulations allowing telecom firms to offer schools, libraries, and other public entities preferential rates for network services in exchange for relatively unfettered entry into new markets.

But the Senate measure that outlined the most comprehensive reform of the nation's communications laws in 60 years was withdrawn in late September by its chief sponsor, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings. The Democrat from South Carolina argued that intense lobbying by the telephone industry made it impossible to pass the bill before adjournment.

Despite the shift in power from a Democratic-majority Congress to a Republican one, it is likely that similar bills will be introduced when Congress reconvenes this month. But whether the F.C.C. will again be designated the lead agency for insuring educational access to telecommunications remains to be seen.

Prepared for Progress

Hundt, 46, may be better prepared than any past F.C.C. chairman to meet the challenge of preparing schools for the digital age.

He taught social studies at an inner-city Philadelphia middle school for two years between graduating from Yale University and attending Yale law school.

"My experience was that there was a vast wasteland of tools and equipment out there in education, and, unfortunately, today, it's still a deficient environment," he says. "Two-thirds of all Americans at work use a computer and a network. Virtually no kids do. Or, more accurately, virtually no kids do at school. That isn't right."

He also has developed a solid reputation--perhaps to his detriment in the industry--as an advocate for curbing violence in children's television programming.

And as chairman, he has forged an unusually close alliance with Education Secretary Richard W. Riley (whom he describes as a "visionary") that has helped him better understand the technological deficiencies of schools.

He argues that all the rhetoric and hyperbole about the information highway and education boil down to a simple principle:

From their individual classrooms, teachers must be able to send and receive faxes, upload and download information from communications satellites, have access to interactive television programming, communicate with parents at home over telephone lines, and join virtual communities of their colleagues on-line.

"These are the tools that every teacher ought to have, because every business in the country is going to have them," he says.

Funding the Networks

Hundt is convinced that the expertise exists to provide meaningful content for the networks that will gradually reshape teaching.

He points to the work of filmmaker George Lucas, who is funding the development of "Edutopia," a program that aims to enable students to use telecommunications and other technologies to explore the world outside their classrooms.

"George has got a great vision," Hundt says. But "there are many other people who can do what George is talking about and who will be doing what George is doing."

What currently keeps students "locked up in educational cells" and discourages innovators like Lucas, Hundt believes, is the lack of an electronic infrastructure to deliver digital signals within a school or across the continent.

"I've been told by educators that building the networks into the classroom would be the greatest technological advance since the printing press in the art of communication," he says. "There's no teacher in this country who can't use networks to be a better teacher, and there's no teacher who can deny that."

If given the authority by Congress, Hundt has suggested, the F.C.C. could use some of the money raised by the airwaves auction to contribute to wiring the schools, in cooperation with state and local governments and private industry. Last month, the Vice President endorsed that idea, but influential Republicans countered that the money should be used to reduce the deficit, as is now intended.

Once the networks are in place, Hundt adds, schools will easily be able to afford the costs of receiving information over them.

"The price of the network and the price of the transmission are related," he says. "The way to have a cheap transmission price is to have a solution to the networking problem. And it's within the scope of the F.C.C.'s job to get that right. We should be very optimistic about this."

But, he adds, educators need to become involved at the state and local levels to insure that their needs are not overlooked as companies rush to cash in on the telecommunications revolution.

"We need everybody concerned, especially the parents, to wake up and smell the coffee," he says. "To say, 'Yes, my kid is being deprived every day of the chance to participate in the communications revolution. What am I going to do about it?'"

Vol. 14, Issue 16

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