Telecoms watchdog improves Net access

11th July 1997 at 01:00
Schools will get unlimited access to the Internet if the telecommunications watchdog, OFTEL, gets its way.

New guidance from the industry regulator asks BT to go further than before in giving schools cheap access to the Internet. Small or rural primaries will get a special deal.

And under plans for the future, schools could get a network to match that used by universities, creating specialised electronic links to give faster and cheaper communications between schools through e-mail, the Internet and possibly even video-conferencing.

Director general Don Cruickshank revealed OFTEL's new thinking as he announced a formal six-week consultation beginning today on BT's well-publicised plans to offer cheap-rate Internet access to all schools.

BT was poised to go public with its own proposals in May - a school was even reported to have been booked for a joint announcement with the Government - when OFTEL stepped in to say it needed to consult to ensure BT was not using its muscle to quash competition from cable rivals.

OFTEL has now examined the plans and used them to create a model for the cheapest service it believes BT could provide. Mr Cruickshank says it goes further than BT originally proposed.

The regulator is proposing a minimum charge of Pounds 650 a year for schools plus a one-off Pounds 150 connection charge which could be spread over several years. This would link them to the information superhighway and give unlimited time on-line. BT could charge more, but if it charges less, it will be effectively subsidising the service - and that will be breaking the law.

The price could fall, however, if cable companies - over whose lines many Internet calls are partly routed - cut their charges to BT.

Access, via high-speed digital ISDN2 lines rather than the newer fibre-optic technology, would be unlimited, compared to BT's proposal of just a few hours a day. It would enable around 10-15 computers to be on-line at once. A special deal of Pounds 400 for two hours a day for small users, such as rural primary schools, is also outlined.

Meanwhile, OFTEL's schools information technology task force is to reconvene to consider the longer-term future, including the next generation of technology and spreading cheap Internet access to the vastly more complex world of further education. "It might be sensible to have a network for schools like JANET (the universities' Joint Academic Network)," Mr Cruickshank said. "It would enable schools to interact more easily."

That would chime with the National Grid for Learning outlined in this week's White Paper, which Labour intends will spread resources and curriculum materials and extend life-long learning.

BT, aware that pupils are the next generation of customers in a fast-growing and highly competitive market, has been working with Labour since Tony Blair's 1995 pledge that every school would be wired to the Internet - a pledge reaffirmed in the White Paper.

The company today welcomed the consultation document and said it hoped the industry would work together to widen access.

Schools could be able to sign up with BT by September. The deadline for initial comments is August 8, with further comments on issues raised to be in by August 22.

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