Communications breakdown;Editorial;News

12th November 1999 at 00:00
"For BT, lifelong learning ends at 6pm." I wish I could remember who made that quip because it's a good one that deserves to be attributed. He was, of course, referring to BT's ISDN Internet connection deal, Schools Internet Caller Tariff. This was the deal we supposed was the result of Tony Blair's promise to relax the restrictions on BT's services to subscribers in return for free Internet connection for schools and colleges.

Criticism of the offer was muted partly because it was felt schools would connect anyway, and at least they now had fixed costs - pound;790 a year, 8am to 6pm on school days. Our main criticism was the 6pm shut-off. What about schools that run homework clubs in the evenings and weekends? Or involve parents out of school hours? And how was it that cable companies could offer 24-hour connection for less?

Now, however, it seems the "fixed costs" have been unfixed for many schools (News, page 4). They have fallen foul of the 6pm cut-off and been charged up to pound;3,000; one Cheshire primary school received a 67-page telephone bill for pound;1,125. Some schools have even disconnected their networks from the telephone lines in panic - what a terrible introduction to the National Grid for Learning.

Even worse, if schools had paid up BT would have taken the money - Internet provider Edex has struggled to get BT to waive the charges.

This all augurs badly for BT's current offer to woo primary schools to connect to the Internet. This "low-cost" scheme gives a measly 15 hours online a week. If schools are already falling foul of their 8am-6pm ration, the scope for financial problems with the new primary tariff is wider still.

The Government and telecoms watchdog Oftel have not broken BT's domestic monopoly in a meaningful way. And in terms of the spirit of the Blair deal, the Government and education have been short-changed.

Without any resolute government action the prospects are not good. ISDN was dated when it was rolled out for schools, and the ADSL service BT intends to introduce - only because it has been threatened with more competition - is said to be insufficient for schools' needs.

BT is one of the most profitable and dominant companies in this country and it must be made to realise it should be a generous leader, not an obstructive curmudgeon. Public criticism, which is increasing daily, and political action are the only things that will force BT to understand it should be part of the solution, not the problem.

It would be nice to move on to something brighter, but unfortunately there's more bad news. While many children are dreaming of getting a computer andor games machine this Christmas, the latest statistics suggest the warnings of a gulf between ICT haves and have-nots are correct. According to Peter Day, senior analyst at Gartner e-Business, the wealthiest 20 per cent of households account for 60 per cent of PC sales (cover feature, page 10). It's a sad statistic and means that the Government is right to plan public-access learning centres in inner-cities and lease computers to low-income families. The only question is if this will be enough.

But these clouds have a silver lining. The indications are that links between home and school will become extremely important and although it's still early days, there is interesting work going on. At Sawtry Community College, Cambridgeshire, pupils and staff are using wireless technology to link laptops to the college's intranet and the Internet (page 12). The next phase is even more impressive: they plan to extend radio network access to local primary schools, a health centre and homes.

Teachers benefit from home access too, as a report on the Government's "laptops for teachers" scheme by BECTA indicates (page 14). Schemes to help teachers buy a PC could have far-reaching effects, particularly if they dovetail into training schemes.

The weakest spots are the homes of the have-nots. Ensuring schools have technology at least as good as that in homes will help. And maybe the recycled computer schemes - which have led to problems at some schools - could more profitably be focused on homes. And lowering the costs of Internet access to both schools and homes is crucial.

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