Aides Optimistic Bill Will Ease Schools' Telecomm Access

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The final version of a lengthy and complex measure that would rewrite the nation's 61-year-old communications laws is likely to contain provisions that would ensure schools "affordable" access to the so-called information highway, according to congressional aides.

The bill also carries two measures designed to limit children's access to on-line pornography and violent television programming.

As of last week, House and Senate conferees were still wrestling over the details of legislation that would reconcile the two chambers' proposals to rewrite the Communications ACT of 1934. The measures would significantly deregulate the telecommunications industry.

Although some participants and observers have issued public pronouncements that the bill may never be voted out of the conference committee, aides remain optimistic that lawmakers will send a bill to President Clinton for his signature, and that it will include language guaranteeing schools access to advanced telecommunications networks at favorable rates.

The so-called Snowe-Rockefeller amendment, an educational-access measure that was added to the Senate bill, S 652, has no counterpart in the bill passed by the House, HR 1555. But the language appears to have enough bipartisan support to remain in the 281-page conference report, aides said.

"Obviously, without a final report out, you can never be certain," said an aide to Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, who proposed the affordability language along with Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va.

"But certainly the provision won very strong support in the Senate," the aide said, "and it's also won support from a number of members of the House."

Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake as Congress considers the legislation, which could open up lucrative new markets for the nation's cable-television, telephone, and other telecommunications companies.

Schools' Stake

In such a high-stakes situation, educational-affordability provisions have not been in the limelight, but such measures could go a long way toward bringing schools into the information age. Schools now generally pay the higher rates charged to businesses for phone service.

While there are many points of contention in the proposed legislation that might cause telecommunications lobbyists to try to derail the conference process, the education amendments are not among them, said David Byer, a legislative analyst for the Software Publishers Association, a trade group based here.

"This is a 'two for one,"' he said. "They could easily get some bad press over this by opposing it. And they know that this was a big interest of President Clinton's, and they might anger him by opposing it."

Administration officials, particularly Vice President Al Gore, have often urged that every classroom should have access to the information highway.

Protecting Minors

Two other provisions of interest to educators are also likely to be included in the final bill.

One would require television manufacturers to include compu-ter chips in their sets that allow parents to screen out programs that are objectionable to them. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1995.)

Another provision would establish criminal penalties for knowingly providing minors with access to pornographic materials on the global Internet computer network.

Many technology-using educators argue that this provision is unnecessary because software exists to screen out such information for classroom users of the network. But others say that the explosive growth in Internet use in schools necessitates some form of protection. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

The bill's prospects change almost daily. While aides are optimistic that a compromise could pass this month, skeptical observers on Capitol Hill note that the conference committee has been working on the bill since last fall. In addition, President Clinton has threatened to veto some versions of the measure.

At one point last month, Rep. Michael G. Oxley, R-Ohio, declared the telecommunications bill as "dead as Elvis."

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