Cable clears way for schools to surf the Net

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The Independent Online
Britain's cable operators yesterday offered the nation's schools low- cost unlimited access to the Internet, in a move that is sure to provoke a similar offer from British Telecom, the leading telecommunications company.

Under the one-price offer, schools in cable-franchise areas can dial up and use the Internet without paying per-minute charges. The operators will make a monthly charge of pounds 50 for a high-speed ISDN line, in addition to annual charges of between pounds 100 and pounds 500, depending on school size. Thereafter, calls are free.

Mary Marsh, head teacher at Holland Park School in London and the teacher representative on the Oftel Education Task Force, said: "This is excellent news for schools. A fixed-price with unlimited use is exactly what is needed to open access to the Internet and on-line communications for all students and teachers."

Stephen Davidson, the chief executive of the cable company Telewest, and the chairman of the Cable Communications Association, added: "Our members have identified education as one of the three top priorities."

BT said it was prepared to offer similar low-charge access, with unlimited calls, provided it could reach agreement with Oftel, the telecoms regulator. BT controversially reached a "deal" with the Labour Party in 1995 under which it would connect all schools and other public-sector organisations in return for a relaxation of controls on the company's activities in broadcasting.

The main impediment to rapid growth in Internet use in the UK has been high call charges. In the United States, local service is free, after a monthly charge. BT last week confirmed it was considering packages that would combine fixed charges and unlimited local calls.

Normal telephone lines can be used to tap into the Internet, but the rate of data transfer can be slow. ISDN lines allow the transfer of up to 128 kilobits of information a second, compared to about 14 kilobits on traditional lines. The cable industry has spent pounds 6bn building a fibre- optic broad-band network capable of carrying both television and telephony services. It has signed up 1.6 million customers nationwide.

The Internet is viewed by educators as a prime tool for use in classrooms, with access to the worldwide network providing educational material, statistics and other general information.