Telecom bill provides discounts for schools, libraries, rural health care providers

Originally published in Current, Feb. 12, 1996

By Steve Behrens

Little noticed in the Telecom Act of 1996, signed into law last week, was a provision that directs the FCC and state public utility commissions to give telecom discounts to elementary/secondary schools, libraries and rural health care providers.

The provisions in Section 254 amount to the surviving stepchildren of the "public right of way'' provisions proposed by pubcasters and other nonprofits for the telecom bills of both this Congress and the last one.

Under the law, elementary and secondary schools and libraries will be entitled to discounted rates that "ensure affordable access'' to telecom services.

Public and nonprofit health care providers, including medical schools and mental health clinics, that serve "persons who reside in rural areas'' will also pay lower rates comparable to those in urban areas of their states.

Dennis Bybee of the International Society for Technology in Education guesses that "affordable access'' may mean discounts of as much as 75 to 90 percent for schools and libraries.

"It was a big victory for education and the library community,'' says Jill Lesser of People for the American Way, which was active in a nonprofit coalition that lobbied the sponsor, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and others.

The degree of discounts, the kinds of services covered and other means of achieving the law's "universal service'' goals will be recommended to the FCC by a Federal-State Joint Board.

Lesser says much of the regulatory action will occur in state public utilities commissions, which may adopt rules "not inconsistent'' with the FCC's for intrastate services.

The provisions were introduced last spring by Snowe and cosponsored by Sens. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and James Exon (D-Neb.). The Senate adopted it in June and the House accepted it in conference committee.

The sponsors left out higher education to give the provision a better chance of passage and then further trimmed eligibility to overcome objections of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) before Senate action. Schools with endowments of more than $50 million were cut out. Libraries are included only if they are eligible for Title III federal funding.

Another obscure part of the telecom bill, Section 708, championed by Sen. Carol Mosely-Braun (D-Ill.), authorizes federal aid to a new nonprofit corporation, the National Education Technology Funding Corp., though without mentioning funding levels.

Mosely-Braun developed the provision with the National Education Association and the Council on Educational Development and Research, according to NEA's Carolyn Breedlove.

NETFC's broad purpose: "to leverage resources and stimulate private investment in education technology infrastructure, to encourage states to create and upgrade interactive high capacity networks for elementary schools, secondary schools and public libraries, to provide loans, grants or other forms of assistance to state education technology agencies, and other educational purposes.''

The corporation has no staff or money, but already has a board: attorney James Murray, former president of Fannie Mae; Mary Hatwood Futrell, dean of education at George Washington University; and former Sen. John Danforth.

America's Public Television Stations plans to seek an additional rate preference for pubcasters in the revision of the Public Broadcasting Act that the House telecom subscommittee is preparing. APTS wants pubcasters to pay incremental cost-based rates for telecom services by cable, telephone and other telecom carriers, says APTS Vice President Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis.

Excerpted from an earlier article published in Current, July 31, 1995

The amendment, as introduced by Snowe, originally set school rates at the telecom companies' cost of providing service, but was toned down to say only that telecom rates for schools and libraries must be ''affordable'' and ''less than the amounts charged for similar services to other parties.'' Rates for rural health institutions would have to be ''reasonably comparable to rates charged for similar services in urban areas.''

''It's been shocking how little education has been a part of [telecom legislation],'' comments Michelle Richards, federal networks advocate for the National School Boards Association. But the Snowe-Rockefeller amendment was a ''huge victory'' for education, she says.

Bill Wright, a pioneer K-12 net-maven who now staffs the Consortium for School Networking, Washington, reports that high phone charges multiply the cost of Internet access for schools that are outside of cities. A school in Grand Isle, Vt., for instance, must pay about $11 an hour for a line into Burlington, the nearest available connection to the Internet.

He quotes a South Dakota teacher: when the infohighway came to town, she felt the cost amount to a chain across the road. And the feeling is worse for educators who want to use interactive video in distance learning.

''A lot of schools are getting sticker shock,'' says educational telecom consultant Richard Hezel, when administrators discover that a two-way video hookup can cost $20,000 or even $48,000 a year, per school, in line charges.

''What is happening is that schools are purchasing the equipment and then are not able to pay the line costs because they are so outrageous,'' says Chris Dalziel of the Instructional Telecommunications Consortium.

New River Community College, at Dublin, Va., has equipped distance-learning classrooms on two campuses 20 miles apart so that they can share instructors, but the college can't afford the line charges of a combined $3,600 a month, says Tom Wilkinson, distance education director.

Internet connections at the Dublin campus are also inferior; the college's 56 kilobytes-per-second hookup to the 'net is swamped when many students are using it, and the college doesn't have the capacity to allow students to connect into it from home.

''My opinion would be: if the telecom vendors would lower the rates, the volume would more than make up for the higher costs,'' predicts Wilkinson.

Richard comments: ''It's also surprising to me that some of the corporate interests aren't looking to how they can get kids and schools working online.''

Indeed, some major telcos see that advantage and have helped schools introduce young people to advanced telecom services at school by offering reduced school rates, as have Bell Atlantic in Maryland and Pacific Bell in California.

Elsewhere, state legislatures have moved out ahead of Congress in mandating telecom discounts or allocating funds for educational technology. In Georgia and Michigan, where phone companies owed big refunds to customers, the states directed millions from the refunds into school technology, says Hezel. Tennessee gave education a 30 percent break on telecom rates.

Texas has made one of the biggest commitments, planning to invest $1.5 billion over 10 years in building school networks and training educators, according to Connie Stout, director of the state's Texas Education Network. The state will collect half the money from wireline phone companies and the other half from cellular operators.

Telecom companies in Texas that want to benefit from the ''sunset'' of state deregulation, she says, must offer schools a distance-insensitive transmission rate that is just 5 percent above costs, effective Sept. 1 [1995].


To Current's home page

Earlier news: Eligibility narrowed in Senate debate on Snowe amendment.

Later news: Federal/state panel recommends school and library telecom discounts based on Snowe amendment.


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