US taxes phone giants to get every class online

THE Government has made much of its vow to connect every school in Britain to the Internet by 2002, but it pales somewhat when the United States is aiming to give every classroom Net access by 2000.

In a speech in June, President Bill Clinton said that the US was on target to meet this goal. "Four years ago, barely 3 per cent of America's classrooms were connected. By this time next year, we will have connected well over half - including 100 per cent of the classrooms in the nation's 50 largest urban school districts," he said.

A vital component of the strategy is the E-rate, which Richard Riley, the US Education Secretary, describes as one of the most important educational initiatives of the last 20 years. The scheme will give every government and private school and public library discounts of between 20 and 90 per cent on Internet access, telecommunications services and internal connections and networks, as well as installation and maintenance.

Funding comes from a 3 per cent levy on telecommunications companies, some of which oppose the scheme and are passing the cost on to consumers. Lobbying has seen the funding reduced from $2.25 billion (Pounds 1.4 billion) for the first year to $1.92 billion over 18 months until June 30, 1999.

Nevertheless, the E-rate will still help a great number of American schools to join the information superhighway. Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that wealthy schools are more than twice as likely to have Internet access in classrooms than poorer schools - 36 versus 14 per cent. Schools with mostly white students are even more likely to have Net access in classrooms than those with a high minority enrolment - 37 against 13 per cent. Overall, 27 per cent of classrooms are now linked to the Internet.

The first stage of the E-rate application process ended in April, with more than 30,000 applications requesting discounts worth $2 billion submitted.

Political wrangling continues to delay the first payments to schools, but the head of the Schools and Libraries Corporation, the authority administering the E-rate, hopes that money will start to flow very soon.

Jose Alvarado, telecommunications supervisor of the Fresno Unified School District in California, admits that he is anxious to know the fate of his area's funding application, which is worth about $13 million.

He says the E-rate scheme will benefit the district, which has more than 90 schools and 75,000 students, by bringing technology to the classroom sooner rather than later.

"It's an excellent programme and will help a lot of children throughout the US. Any help that schools can get to get Internet in classrooms is welcomed, " Mr Alvarado says.

The money saved by schools will help them buy computers and modems that are not funded by the E-rate. He says: "The E-rate has given everybody a new outlook and the feeling that getting technology into the classroom can be a reality instead of a pie-in-the-sky idea."

An amendment passed by the Senate in August will require schools and libraries to choose a system that blocks access to offensive Internet material before receiving any E-rate funding. E-rate supporters have complained that the scheme has received an undue amount of scrutiny and want it to go ahead without any more hindrance.

There is little chance of a similar scheme being set up in Britain. This is all the more unfortunate as, unlike the US, Internet use incurs telephone call charges, making it an expensive venture for many schools.

Speaking in London last month, Craig Barrett, chief executive of chip maker Intel, said that Internet use was directly related to the cost of access. This is why Net use was higher in the US than Britain.

He called on the UK Government to lower phone charges to encourage greater Internet use and to provide tax breaks on computers for family educational use. Oddly enough, BT and Cable and Wireless et al are not scrambling to support his call.

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