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Caught in the net

It's almost two years since Tony Blair announced his deal with BT to give every school and college in the country access to the Internet via a broadband superhighway.

That pledge, so appealing in its simplicity (and so politically effective at the time) went into Labour's manifesto with only slight modification, and is now considered government policy. But as with most clear, simple, popular pre-election promises, making it real is going to be far from clear and simple.

The "National Grid for Learning" is a long-term project that will require heavy investment to take broadband fibre-optics to every school, college, library and hospital in the country. Exactly what form this grid will take is not clear. The notion of a dedicated network provided solely by BT is less plausible than a "virtual network" existing alongside many others, with the load shared by various telecoms providers, including the cable companies.

How much has to be spent, by whom, and what they will get in return, all remains to be thrashed out. Much of the thrashing is going on right now in a select committee at the Department of Trade and Industry, where telecoms, educational and IT heads are being banged together with the aim of producing a White Paper by the autumn. But what are schools supposed to do in the meantime? Wait and see is not an option for teachers and students eager to exploit the educational wonderland that is the Internet. According to the telecommunications watchdog Oftel, most schools using the Internet (about 80 per cent of secondary schools, but only 5 per cent of primaries) still rely on basic, dial-up connections, typically to just one PC.

Many early adopters became disillusioned by slow, unreliable connections, and unpredictable, often frighteningly high, phone bills - as much as Pounds 5,000 for primary schools, and Pounds 20,000 have been reported. Late last year, Oftel's education task force urged BT and other operators to offer schools Internet package deals, with an emphasis on en-suring predictability of charges, and free choice of Internet service providers. Regulations that previously prevented BT from charging schools less than other business customers would be relaxed.

At around the same time, the cable industry launched a deal which appeared to satisfy most of the Oftel requirements, offering scaled flat-rate charges working out at roughly 1p per pupil per year for unlimited Internet access, regardless of the size of the school.

In theory this was great news for schools in cabled areas, but unfortunately more than half of UK schools are not in cabled areas. The Cable Communications Association says take-up of the offer has been good, but is unable to give precise figures.

Cable's "1p per pupil" figure has become a benchmark. Late in May, BT submitted interim proposals for a similarly priced scheme. This was rejected by OFTEL last week on the grounds that its choice of Internet service providers (ISPs) was anti-competitive. The affair was passed off as a minor hitch, with BT, Oftel and others eager to co-operate on a substantive scheme, which Oftel will open up for public consultation in July. But, as consultations take at least six weeks, hopes of schools getting a new deal out of BT by September have all but vanished.

Free choice of ISP is clearly a good thing, but on what basis should teachers make their choice? As many have already discovered, getting it wrong can be expensive and frustrating, while changing ISP in mid-stream is not always as easy as it should be. All of which makes a new survey of service providers, to be conducted by the National Council for Educational Technology, extremely welcome news. This, according to the NCET's Malcolm Herbert, will produce the UK's first independent evaluation of Internet access, starting with dial-up services, which will be monitored for reliability, speed of connections, and data transmission speed. The aim is to produce Which?-style reports, published regularly by the NCET (on paper as well as on its Web site) starting later this year.

And if you can't wait for that, another NCET project, the Education Department Superhighways Initiative, is about to publish a 48-page technical guidance document on low-bandwidth Internet access. As Malcolm Herbert points out, the ISP business is highly volatile, with smaller firms being snapped up by the larger operators. His final piece of advice for schools looking for an Internet connection now is that "added value" educational content "doesn't have to be bought with the service provider", and that all-in-one "bundled" solutions are not likely to be as cost-effective as approaching individual suppliers.

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