Public Schools Open Doors to New Markets

TCI's new education subsidiary will use public schools to jump-start new business for infotech services

P> Billy, a typical eighth-grader, rushes into school, dumps his CDs on his desk and logs on. Up pops the TCI logo and the voice of his home-room teacher welcoming Billy to school.

But then, in a tinny, digitized voice, the teacher tells him he's five minutes late. A neural net software package correlates Billy's tardiness to his recent poor performance and sends a copy of the resulting report to Billy's mother in McLean and to his father, an integrator traveling on business in Saudi Arabia. Affixed to the report is a pitch for a new piece of learning software designed specifically to solve Billy's learning problems.

Welcome to a possible scenario of education in a future envisioned by Bill Clinton and infotech industry magnates.

By boosting the public school education business, "we are helping to create a whole new market" among parents, work force training centers and international consumers for education technology, said Pat Wright, manager of ETC w/tci, Tele-Communications Inc.'s new education subsidiary.

And Bill Clinton has become a key booster. During a Feb. 15 tour of a New Jersey school, Clinton said he will assemble a five-year, $2 billion fund from existing federal programs to promote the use of educational infotech.

The federal program, dubbed the Technology Literacy Challenge, is intended to stimulate the states -- via matching grants and other incentives -- to spend another $8 billion on educational computers, software, communications and training, said U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley.

There's room for plenty of growth; 50 percent of the United States' K-12 schools and 9 percent of its classrooms were connected to the Internet by the end of 1995, up from 35 percent and 3 percent in 1994, according to a survey released Feb. 16 by the Education Department.

"We are in a rapidly changing situation," where more systems integration companies will apply themselves to the education sector, said Linda Roberts, the Education Department's director of education technology.

Last year, AT&T, Basking Ridge, N.J., announced it would provide $150 million of free communications services and Internet-browsers to all 110,000 U.S. schools. Also, AT&T has spent $500 million on education-related programs since 1985, and its AT&T Foundation will spend another $50 million by 2000 developing better educational infotech, and improving links between schools, libraries and parents.

Bell Atlantic Corp., Philadelphia, trains teachers at the New Jersey school visited by Clinton, and Cambridge, Mass.-based BBN Corp. signed an agreement Jan. 31 with the Florida Department of Education to develop technology that will help teachers use the Internet for teaching. Also, Sun Microsystems Inc., Mountain View, Calif., was chosen in December by Oklahoma state officials to provide its SPARC Internet servers to the statewide OneNet educational network.

But the cable companies have an enormous advantage, said Michael Roberts, vice president of policy for Educom, a Washington-based consortium of colleges, universities and technology corporations. The companies can use their high-capacity networks to deliver education software and information to schools, without the schools having to shoulder the burden of operating sophisticated Web servers, he said.

By using TCI's cable network, ETC can immediately offer interactive television instruction via 10 Mb-per-second links to 61 percent of the nation's schools. TCI also plans to donate 10,000 terminals for its Primestar Direct Broadcast Satellite system, boosting ETC's reach to 75 percent of the nation's schools. With this nationwide reach, ETC can offer a one-year, commercial-free, interactive television course in Spanish or science for $500 per student, Wright said.

ETC's one-stop shopping plan is also more ambitious than other companies' because it allows a local school board to sign an eight-year contract for Pentium-class computers, software, communications and teacher training for roughly $265 per year, per student, said Wright. This plan will soon be expanded to include the distribution of roughly 250 education software titles by companies such as SoftKey International Inc., Cambridge, Mass.

By building a strong foundation in the nation's schools, ETC will be better positioned to sell education technology and services to other markets, such as parents, overseas audiences, as well as business training centers, Wright said. "The idea is to view schools as an anchor tenant in shopping malls," which helps a real estate developer find additional tenants for a new mall, he said.

TCI can parlay its role inside the schools into the at-home education market, which could be used to sell education software and related products to parents, he said.

If successful, TCI could set up ETC-like businesses in other countries such as Japan, said Wright.

Schools with telecommunications access

Computers connected to a local area network77

Computer with modem76

Computer with connection or access to a wide area network61

Broadcast television71

Cable television76

Closed-circuit television28

One-way video with two-way audio or computer link13

Two-way video and audio7

Source: U.S. Department of Education

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