Schools and libraries become inexpensive Net service providers

In several states, a movement is afoot to require telephone companies to offer a range
of telecommunications services, including Internet access, at reduced rates. Michigan Gov.
John Engler recently signed a law requiring that those services be provided at cost to
school districts.


An interesting side angle is that the schools can buy Integrated Services Digital
Network, T1 Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line and other broadband services without
restrictions on reselling or sharing the bandwidth with others.


In theory, a school could set up a modem bank and offer dial-in access to anyone. Most
likely, it would share its access with other schools and government offices.


Schools in widely dispersed buildings often want broadband services for conferencing
and multimedia. Selling excess bandwidth is a logical move. In Wyoming, some libraries and
school districts already broker their online access to others.


Any government office paying a premium for a dial-in connection through a regional
provider might negotiate a better deal through a local school. Likewise, town halls that
have never been wired could come online this way.


One factor that could accelerate this trend is the increased demand for access, which
generates rising charges from local Internet providers. Sprint Corp. has just raised its
charges for T1 lines, and providers will pass along the increase. Some tack on extra fees
to guarantee that certain packets receive higher priority during switching.


Surprisingly, commercial providers have not objected to schools' entry into Internet
competition. Small providers tend to have all the business they can handle anyway, and
large telephone companies may be looking to gain government concessions as they provide
more new services.


Low-cost school access isn't mandatory in most places, but providers recognize that
school accounts are good markets. The latest twist is free sign-up credits for business
and home users that can be assigned to the schools of their choice.


Another factor is the Federal Universal-Service fund for connecting schools, libraries
and rural hospitals to the Internet, established last spring by the Federal Communications
Commission.


The FCC has since reduced the amount local and long-distance phone companies must
contribute, but the fund still could collect up to $675 million by July. It's possible the
FCC will recommend to Congress that Internet providers be reclassified as
telecommunications services, which would mean they also would have to pay into the fund.
If that happens, subscriber rates are sure to rise even more.


These factors are putting schools in the driver's seat as Internet access routes for
other government sites. But schools or libraries that function as independent service
providers are in a difficult position. They aren't really in the network business.


Even so, if selling access means getting discounts deep enough to fund Internet access
plus someone to tend the system, many schools likely will go this route.


Schools looking for funding to enter the game can start at the World Wide Web site at http://www.netday.org/info_usa/workshop.html.
The FCC's Universal Service page discusses Internet access for schools at http://www.fcc.gov/ccb/universal_service/welcome.html.


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Publishing Co. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.


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