C&P 'school bus' starts race on information highway Interactive network links four classrooms

July 01, 1993|By Michael Dresser and John W. Frece | Michael Dresser and John W. Frece,Staff Writers

Dorothy Tucker-Houk gave a French lesson yesterday, and her students weren't the only ones who learned something.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. President Frederick D'Alessio basked in triomphe as the Towson High School teacher demonstrated their latest coup -- an "information highway" with the potential to connect all the state's high schools and colleges in a vast interactive television and computer network.

Connected by that technology, students at Northwestern High and Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore, and Chesapeake and Towson high schools in Baltimore County, watched one another as they discussed the meaning of joie de vivre.

Meanwhile, a representative of the cable television industry looked on with chagrin and malaise as his technological rivals gave him un grand mal de tete.

The demonstration came as part of the official announcement yesterday of a "partnership" between C&P and the state, under which C&P will install a fiber-optic cable link to each of the state's 56 colleges and more than 200 high schools.

To show how the network works, Ms. Tucker-Houk engaged students at the four high schools in a French guessing game. NTC The interaction between the teacher and students appeared as spontaneous as if all of them had been in the same room.

Ms. Tucker-Houk in Towson asked the name of the French scientist who discovered how to kill bacteria. From Poly, student Damon Payton piped up that it was Louis Pasteur, winning gubernatorial applause for a correct answer. With help from the backbenchers, Poly fought Chesapeake to a draw.

Earlier, state officials and C&P executives described the system -- dubbed "Advantage: Maryland" -- as unique in the United States.

"Beginning today, we are going to make Maryland the national leader," crowed Mr. D'Alessio, who's also chief executive officer of the Bell Atlantic subsidiary.

He called the system an "electronic school bus connecting students and teachers so they can do their best work."

Toward the back of the room, Wayne O'Dell looked as if he'd been run over by C&P's bus. The president of the Cable Television Association of Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia had been taken aback when news of the network broke last week. And it looked to him as if "Advantage: Maryland" meant "Disadvantage: Cable."

Cable companies have been going head-to-head with telephone companies across the nation in the race to replace traditional copper wiring with state-of-the-art, high-capacity optical fiber cables.

Cable industry officials complained the C&P deal was cut in secret and should have been put up for competitive bidding.

"It just seems you don't reach this kind of agreement on this kind of broad technology without taking all other technologies into consideration," said Mr. O'Dell. He said the cable industry would come up with its own proposal.

Mr. Schaefer said he saw no need for competitive bidding. C&P was the only company to offer the money to install the network, he said.

Mr. D'Alessio said the company's $30 million investment in the network, and its donation of more than $10 million in TV monitors, microphones and cameras to participating schools, will have "absolutely no impact on basic ratepayers."

Fees paid by participating schools -- $1,365 a month for the first three years and $2,730 a month thereafter -- should cover the capital outlay and operating costs for the next 10 years.

But schools would have no obligation to participate, and if C&P were to lose money, the risk would be borne by shareholders, he said.

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