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Vouchers seen as route to highway

Primary and secondary schools should be given vouchers to pay for links to the information superhighway, according to OFTEL, the telecommunications watchdog, in a new consultative document.

The recommendation comes after Labour announced in October that it had struck a deal with British Telecom. In exchange for offering schools a free cable link-up BT would be allowed to compete with other cable companies in the open market. This was followed last month by the Government's launch of its pilot "Superhighways for Learning" scheme.

OFTEL devotes a chapter to "education superhighway services" in its 47-page document on improving access to digital networks by 1997. It proposes that the nation's 30,000 primary, secondary and special schools should have "affordable" access to a multi-media network.

This could mean links to the Internet, video on demand, electronic mail and video conferencing.

OFTEL, which will hold a workshop on February 23 to discuss the proposals before the first consultation stage ends on February 29, is asking consumers, educationists and industry whether different schools should have different levels of service and how much they should pay.

It proposes two options - a discount tariff for schools or vouchers, which, it says, is its preferred system. A special tariff would have to take into account the size of a school. Fixed payments would be a disincentive as use of the cable link might have to be limited to keep costs down.

Under OFTEL's preferred system schools would be given a cash voucher. The cable operator would then claim back the value of the voucher from the funding body.

The value of the voucher could be varied depending on the size or type of school. For example, if the funding body put Pounds 50 million a year into the scheme, an average school could see Pounds 1,500-Pounds 2,000 a year knocked off its charges for certain cable services, says OFTEL.

Geoff Hoon, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, welcomed the proposals. He said vouchers for the superhighway would not be as controversial as vouchers for nursery education because OFTEL was discussing putting new money from the industry into the scheme.

OFTEL will consult again after Easter 1996 .

Universal telecommunications services: consultation document on universal service in the UK from 1997 from OFTEL, 50 Ludgate Hill, London EC4M 7JJ.

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