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Birth pangs hit the superhighway

Roadworks on the sliproad to an information superhighway for schools should not prevent the system being up and running by Christmas, the Government pledged this week.

While behind-the-scene politics in the fiercely competitive telecommunications world have appeared to get in the way of plans to wire Britain's schools to the Internet, junior education minister Kim Howells told The TES he believed a "national grid for learning" would be in place by the end of the year.

Dr Howells said he hoped the connections would be cheap enough for schools. The key to that is likely to be BT's long-awaited package of cut-price connections.

Last week off-stage battles came to the fore with rumours that a joint BT-Government press launch had been cancelled suddenly. Regulator OFTEL announced it was to hold consultations into BT's proposals.

BT says it had hoped to be able to start taking orders from schools before the end of term, allowing them to be wired up for the start of the new academic year.

The OFTEL inquiry which will see if BT's proposals are anti-competitive, now makes that unlikely. But Christine Farnish, OFTEL's director of consumer affairs, said she hoped a decision would be made by early September.

BT's proposed deal would have given schools unlimited Internet access for Pounds 790 a year and free connection to a high-speed digital line if they didn't already have one. On top of that will come the cost of a service provider such as BT's own CampusWorld, which allows users to find their way around the Net.

That is more expensive than the offer from cable companies which would cost schools Pounds 600, often with a service provider included - less if they want Internet access from a single, un-networked terminal.

But BT's offer would be deliverable across almost the entire country. It already covers 98 per cent of the UK, compared to 50 per cent by cable. In many areas the cable network is not complete or the technology is not suitable. Only a handful of schools are thought to have taken up the cable companies' offer.

OFTEL would like to take the credit for any breakthrough. Its director general, Don Cruickshank, points to the task force he set up last year to look at schools' needs.

Tony Blair had pointed the way a year earlier by announcing a "deal" with BT to link up schools in return for cutting the red tape that binds the former state monopoly.

BT now says that deal relates to the next wave of technology - fibre-optic cables - and that its current proposal is a chance for schools to get on-line using much-improved existing technology.

Both cable and BT deals break down the real barrier schools face to joining the "information superhighway" - the on-going cost of using the lines. Schools are unwilling to buy in a service without being able to predict the size of bills. And as any parent of a phone-literate youngster knows, phone bills can be anything but predictable.

The fixed-price tariff overcomes that. It may appear a straightforward solution but in telecommunications, things are rarely that simple.

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