What price a politician's promise?

27th June 1997 at 01:00
You are in a school. You have a long memory and you think back to the Labour party conference of 1995. Tony Blair stands up and announces: "We have been in these past weeks in discussion with BT. In return for access to the market, I can announce they have agreed, as they build their network, to connect up every school, every college, every hospital and every library in Britain. For free. They get the chance to win new markets.But the nation gets the chance to succeed."

So, two years on, where is this chance to succeed? The fact is that OFTEL,the telecoms watchdog, BT, the Government and the cable companies now appear locked in a dreary conflict that has little to do with schools and learning but everything to do with maximising power and influence.

Virtually everyone involved agrees that there can be no real progress with the Government's heralded "National Grid for Learning" without BT. Its network is the key to the whole infrastructure.

Just when BT was about to offer its own cut-price connection deal to schools, supported by the Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, in stepped Don Cruickshank, the OFTEL boss, calling for consultation and investigation. So schools that might have wanted to take up the offer this term - setting up their systems over the summer - may now have to wait until next term.

BT says it can get high-capacity lines, known as ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), into an impressive 99 per cent of the schools in the UK. So an ISDN learning grid is possible, at the "right" price (believed to be between around #163;400 for primary schools and #163;790 for secondaries), as a halfway house while the UK is cabled up for the fibre-optic network required for the eventual "education superhighway". ISDN works at roughly four times the speed of an average modem but it is not as impressive as it sounds, which is why it is seen as an interim measure.

BT says it is trying to "introduce innovative pricing packages in direct response to what schools tell us they want - low and predictable charges". So if ISDN is only an interim step, why has it taken so long to get this far?

If BT is going to drive this, its record with schools is worth examining. BT's educational Internet service, CampusWorld, has made some mistakes. It was launched too early, gave free subscriptions to local authority advisers all over the country and then ran a service that was so disappointing that many of those advisers abandoned their accounts.

Phil Moore, product manager of CampusWorld, freely admits the difficulties. "There were difficulties with the network. At present we are using the award-winning BT Internet access route. Now what distinguishes us from practically all other providers is that we are using the Internet as a medium. It is not an encyclopaedia, it is not a CD-Rom; it is uniquely interactive, responsive. Now I think we are getting a great deal right. At the moment we are getting 2 million hits per month [on the Web pages] and we have 2,500 subscribers and there are 20,000 unique pages."

You might think that BT Education and BT CampusWorld were one and the same, but they are not. BT also has its own partnerships with around 100 schools nationally.

One of the best kept secrets on the Internet as far as UK schools are concerned is that some of the most interesting and exciting curriculum projects are there, free. These are projects that have a relevance to the curriculum in the UK, that have been researched by teachers, managed by teachers and you do not have to subscribe to a BT service to access them.

The cable companies surprised everyone with their cost-cutting ISDN offer to schools at the beginning of the year. And they already have new deals. Telecential has started to build on its work with Highdown School in Reading (see page 19). The lessons learned will be offered to other schools in the Telecential franchise areas. Microsoft is a partner as is RM. The offer to schools includes free installation, free rental of cable TV, free rental of one conventional telephone line and fixed-rate tariff for standard dial-up access. Telecential does not yet supply ISDN. The rates are: up to 250 pupils, #163;100 per annum; 251-500 pupils, #163;250 per annum; 501-plus, #163;500 per annum. Telecential will also run evenings for parents, pupils and teachers, and schools can earn vouchers for recruiting new subscribers. Fifty vouchers enable schools to buy from the RM catalogue or get training with their local education authority. Other cable companies have shown interest in the Telecential scheme and it is likely that similar schemes will be run in other areas.

Telewest is the largest cable company, with a franchise that covers 20 per cent of the UK population. The franchises stretch from Scotland down to the south-east of England. The company has developed a service called Ecademy. This offers similar rates to Telecential for dial-up access. In addition, it offers ISDN access at a fixed annual rate of #163;600. Ecademy will be based around the Telewest Internet service. Schools will be offered 5 megabytes of Web space to put up their own pages. Content for the service will be provided by the Scottish Council for Educational Technology.

There will also be the facility for schools to develop their own closed areas, maybe to even develop a local intranet. Telewest will help to establish those links by giving free time-on line. For one year they are prepared to offer teachers free Internet access at home as well as free extensions at home from the school system. Like Telecential, it is keen to capitalise on local links to establish ties with communities and local authorities.

Guy Cooper of Telewest sees a significant role for voice mail for teachers in the new on-line environment. Cooper also believes that ISDN is a transitional technology and that eventually it will be cable modems that will make communications a force in the classroom.

The role of OFTEL in all of this is unclear, but its relationship with BT is sufficiently sour to create doubt about its ability to come up with constructive offers for schools without some sort of external political arm twisting, or maybe even head banging! The regulator was put there by the previous government who believed in the market - as long as there were byzantine regulations to encourage competition and curtail monopoly power.

Don Cruickshank vehemently criticised Tony Blair's original deal. He says he has written four times this year to BT to bring proposals forward, and was extremely unhappy when BT and the Government attempted to announce a deal without reference to him - just as they were embarrassed by his intervention.

At the moment the BT proposals are on hold until the OFTEL consultation is complete, and OFTEL is unable to say how long that will take. But a result is not expected this term.

So you are in a school, you are now convinced that communications have a great deal to offer. You are watching all the giants fighting and you are wondering what to do. The only answer can be: do nothing. Wait and see. OFTEL promises that BT's proposals will be considered soon. Cable companies are understandably anxious to lock schools into deals now. Resist their sweetened words until you see the full picture. Remember with bitterness that few of the contenders are really working with your welfare at heart. If something dramatic and open-hearted is not done soon, then what ought be a splendid and courageous step forward will have been turned into something that is mean-spirited and grudging. Not exactly a nation getting a chance to succeed.

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