Before any breakthrough, small cracks usually appear in a surface. This is how the pricing structures for Internet access are starting to look now cable provider CableTel has announced education prices that have major implications for schools.
A significant deterrent to schools' use of the Internet, especially with high-capacity telephone lines (ISDN), has been high and unpredictable on-line charges. A small school making moderate use of the Internet can rack up an annual phone bill of around Pounds 500 - and that is on top of subscription charges.
CableTel, which has six franchise areas, has taken the initiative and announced fixed-rate charges for Internet access to help schools manage their Internet budgets. It offers free connection and line rental of the first line installed, regardless of capacity, plus a fixed annual rate. The fixed rate for line usage is based on the number of pupils in each school as follows: * 0 to 100 pupils Pounds 50
* 100 to 250 pupils Pounds 100
* 250 to 500 pupils Pounds 250
* 500 or more pupils Pounds 500
Schools that take up the offer will have unlimited access to CableTel's Internet provider and be entitled to the tariff for each line, no matter how many extra lines they have. The rates will be available to all schools in CableTel's franchise areas: west Scotland, south Wales, Northern Ireland, west Surrey, east Hampshire, West Yorkshire, and Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. These reductions are huge.
The company's move will be welcomed because it will kick-start the real action. Don Cruikshank, of OFTEL, the telecommunications watchdog, refers to the offer as "a positive step which will help schools to get on-line access to the Internet and other services". He says: "I am encouraged that it tackles problems identified by the task force."
The task force Cruikshank refers to was set up by OFTEL last June. It aims to find out how educational institutions can gain affordable access to telecommunications. The OFTEL task force has identified several barriers to progress. The CableTel offer suggests answers to two of them - predictable prices and access speeds faster than is possible with ordinary telephone lines.
Mary Marsh, headteacher of Holland Park School, west London, serves on the task force and is upbeat about the offer's potential. "It is the kind of offer schools need to get ISDN on to their networks."
Roger Blamire, manager of electronic communications at the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), says that although the offer is limited to schools in the CableTel franchise areas, it is a lever for change. "The costs of communication are coming down and any predictions schools make about future spending should assume reduced costs."
One of the educational IT companies that will be affected is Research Machines. Tim Pearson, professional services manager of RM, concedes it is an impressive offer that will help many people. But he says: "I am unclear about how it will affect other Internet providers." The answer from CableTel is that schools will be able to gain access to other Internet providers if the provider has a CableTel number and a point of presence within local call range of the school.
The big player in UK communications is BT. How will it be affected? Head of marketing for education and training, John Ferguson, points out that BT is a member of the OFTEL task force. "We are looking at offering something special for the education market. We cannot say anything else at the moment."
To most schools in the UK, CableTel's offer is of academic interest as the company covers a relatively small area and the other major telecommunications providers have not, as yet, indicated that they will follow its lead. The present position could lead to some gross inequalities, with a school in part of CableTel's franchise area being able to offer considerably more than another school served - or not - by other companies.
The other big problem is the need for a huge training programme for teachers. There are also questions about the ability of schools to provide the technology to connect with the lines, and about the availability of a filtered service for schools concerned about antisocial material on the networks.
Nevertheless, education can be thankful that the OFTEL task force has produced results after only six months. Now let's hope that the other telecom companies fall into line. No one is betting on how much schools will be paying for ISDN access this time next year.
* CableTel: 0800 406406