Cable's education offer could break a price log-jam for education, writes Jack Kenny.
The UK cable companies have made an Internet offer to schools that could be hard to refuse. They made an offer once before, of a free standard cable connection, and hardly any school noticed. This time, it's tempting to take them at their word on their new fixed-rate deal and test it out.
The offer is for all schools in areas where cable has been laid. The cable company will supply a high-speed digital link for Pounds 50 per month. The price is fixed and will allow unlimited use of the Internet, provided you sign up with an Internet provider. There will also be a tiered fixed price for using conventional dial-up lines: Pounds 100 per annum for schools up to 250 pupils; Pounds 250 for schools with 251 to 500 pupils; Pounds 500 for larger schools.
The latest offer, announced in January, is a breakthrough on Internet pricing. It could also force BT to offer this technology at more realistic prices. Roy Payne, of the Cable Communications Association, says: "This is a first step. We are in a unique position to co-ordinate hardware and software providers to education. Cable is a sophisticated technology. Down one cable we can supply a number of services that are uniquely suited to education and we can be particularly useful when schools wish to work with their local community. "
What do you have to do? Simple. Find out if your school is in a cable area: the companies reckon they have passed about 30 per cent of schools. If so, ring your local company and remind them that the association has made the offer. They might well deny all knowledge of it and try to sell you all kinds of services. Keep after them. If you are getting nowhere, ring 0171 799 1471.
This is an offer that has to be considered. The fixed price is the key. At present, moderate use of a phone line to connect to the Internet could involve a school in on-line charges as high as Pounds 2,000.
The association says that this is the best offer that has been made to schools anywhere in the world, and, for once, the hype could be right. So what if it has been influenced by politics (cable companies want to make sure that they remain in the good books of the politicians). At least they have been bold in taking the first step. The offer, however, is not entirely good news. The cable line is better than an ordinary phone line but it is unlikely that it will be enough to satisfy the demands of a large secondary school.
Primary schools will find little to enthuse about in BT's first response. This could be characterised as too expensive and too late. The ISDN2 (a line with twice the capacity of the one offered by cable) will cost schools a connection charge of Pounds 199. They then choose a rental linked with the call allowance best suited to their needs. The lowest rental - Pounds 1,120 per annum - is billed quarterly in advance. This includes Pounds 795 of calls, equivalent to three hours' local call usage for 170 days per year. If you want more access, then the rate is Pounds 2,420 per annum. All these lines can be used for connecting local area networks to Internet service providers and for distance-learning using video equipment. There is no restriction on the choice of Internet service provider.
It is at this point that we enter the realm of politics. BT says that this is not a final offer. Denise Hall, its general manager for education business, said: "Talks have begun with OFTEL (Office of Telecommunications) to establish more favourable pricing options and it is hoped that further announcements can be made in time for the next academic year. Schools will be able to transfer to the most appropriate package without penalty. At present, our licence does not allow us to offer special packages to particular groups in the community. "
Curiously, Oftel says there is absolutely nothing to stop BT offering cut-price deals to schools. Don Cruikshank, the Oftel boss, recently told The TES that BT could offer schools unlimited use of high-speed connections for as little as Pounds 600 per year.
BT wants to be allowed to compete on equal terms with cable in all markets. Under today's rules, outright competition will not be allowed for five years. BT is hoping a new government will lift the restrictions. Cabling the schools at an economic rate will be one of BT's post-election bargaining strategies with the new administration. Meanwhile those schools with cable capability will have access to a pricing structure much more favourable than that available to those who still rely on BT.