A fiber optics network that would extend to every corner of Maryland, linking high schools and colleges with futuristic audio and video technology, would be built by the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. under an agreement about to be concluded with the state.
The project is expected to cost C&P an estimated $30 million to build and take three years to complete. Details are still being worked out, but Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- one of the driving forces behind the proposal -- and C&P officials have tentatively scheduled an announcement for June 30.
For C&P, the project is a bold investment in telecommunications infrastructure, opening technology-driven business opportunities for the Bell Atlantic subsidiary. It is part of a national race by telephone, cable and other telecommunications companies to replace standard wire cables with high-capacity optical fibers. The winners may be rewarded with the lucrative deals of the future.
By hooking into schools, C&P would own a network that could carry the potential of interactive voice, video, computer and data transmissions to every sizable neighborhood in Maryland.
Schools that participate will have to pay a monthly fee to C&P of approximately $1,365 a month for the first three years, and about $2,730 a month after that. The precise cost and number of locations are still subject to negotiations, although between 200 and 270 initial sites are being discussed.
If as many as 270 sites are hooked up, they would generate more than $4.4 million in revenue to C&P in each of the first three years, and more than $8.8 million in succeeding years.
If businesses or others along the trunk line want to tap in, they, too, would pay C&P, although their rates would be subject to review by the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.
Earlier this month, the commission approved the initial proposal for the rates that schools would be charged. But People's Counsel John M. Glynn, representing C&P ratepayers, said he is concerned that those who don't benefit for the infrastructure improvement may be stuck with the tab. "The right people should pay so that people who can't use it, or don't want it, don't pay for it," he said.
The state expects to benefit by tying into a network that could transform traditional methods of teaching. The basic tools that would connect the classrooms are cameras, microphones and television monitors linked by a fiber optics network.
The network consists of cables of hair-thin glass fibers. Each fiber can carry enormous amounts of information by light waves. The information is digitized, or turned into the 1s and 0s on which computerized instructions are based. This process is controlled by a laser that can be turned on and off up to hundreds of millions of times a second, creating pulses of light -- corresponding to the digitized information -- that are decoded at the other end of the fiber.
Although existing communications networks have been able to handle a growing volume of voice and text transmission, translating images into digital information requires huge amounts computerized instruction. This makes fiber-optics systems especially desirable for transmitting video information.
Providers meet users
The large capacity of fiber optics networks also encourages development of so-called interactive communication, in which providers and users of information can communicate through the network.
In the proposed Maryland educational setting, this interactive capability would allow teachers to answer questions from students around the state, while also permitting other teachers and students to join in on discussions.
The project envisions hooking together up to four locations simultaneously, although discussions are still under way about how this will work.
To ease the transition into this "distance learning" environment, C&P is planning to donate to the state more than $13 million in video-conferencing equipment -- or about $50,000 in equipment for each participating school.
No schools are obligated to sign up, but state officials say school superintendents and college officials who have been briefed on the project can barely wait for it to begin.
"Superintendents are wildly enthusiastic about the opportunity," said state School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
A broader classroom
She envisions a network in which advanced physics, math or science classes, foreign languages, symphony performances or museum exhibits could be transmitted to far-away classrooms.
Students would be able to ask and answer questions as if they were in the room where the program originated.
Mrs. Grasmick said one benefit of the program is that, if successful, it should erase some of the inequities among the curriculum offerings of various school districts because, in theory, instruction in one part of the state should be available to students in any other part.