WASHINGTON -- In a move that combines corporate citizenship and political shrewdness, Bell Atlantic Corp. and Tele-Communications Inc. announced an ambitious program yesterday that would connect more than one-quarter of the nation's public elementary and high schools to the "information superhighway" free of charge.
The plan would offer free access to advanced electronic services to more than 26,000 public schools in the vast areas served by the two intended merger partners, including virtually all of Maryland.
Bell Atlantic Chairman Raymond W. Smith said the combined company would contribute the cost of the electronic hookup plus basic charges as part of "a permanent and persistent commitment on the part of the new Bell Atlantic."
Among the free services that would become available initially would be educational cable TV programming, multimedia educational programs and linkages with the Internet and other computer data bases. Eventually the systems could be used to support such applications as "talking encyclopedias" and teleconferencing between parents and teachers, Mr. Smith said.
John C. Malone, president of TCI, predicted the wiring of the nation's classrooms could have a profound effect on how American students are taught. "The formats will become increasingly game-like," he said.
The "Basic Education Program" is similar in philosophy to the plan Bell Atlantic's Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland proposed last summer to link all the state's high schools and colleges with a fiber-optic network, but the technology is less advanced.
The system announced yesterday would have more channel capacity than basic telephone systems but would not be capable of carrying the interactive video programming envisioned in the Maryland plan, said Bell Atlantic spokesman Eric Rabe. While the Maryland network would also link schools free of charge, it would involve a monthly service charge to school districts, he added.
Unlike the C&P initiative, the offer announced yesterday would extend to elementary and middle schools.
The Bell Atlantic-TCI initiative comes just weeks after a powerful House subcommittee chairman challenged telecommunications companies to ensure that the nation's schools aren't left behind in the rush to build a 21st century communications infrastructure.
Officials of the two companies candidly admitted that by showing sensitivity to public policy concerns, they hoped to allay worries in Congress and regulatory agencies surrounding their proposed merger. "To say it's entirely unrelated is wrong," said TCI Senior Vice President Robert Thomson, who joined Mr. Smith and Mr. Malone in Los Angeles.
The $30 million merger, announced in October, is being scrutinized by the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, which has come under pressure from members of Congress to block or force changes in the merger agreement.
"It's very smart. It's really going to pull the rug out of a lot of the opposition to the deal," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, a consumer advocacy group that has been cool toward the merger.
By offering free services to public schools, the two companies earned plaudits from Rep. Edward J. Markey, chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee and a skeptic about the merger agreement. Joining a three-city video press conference from Boston, the Massachusetts Democrat hailed the Bell Atlantic-TCI move as a "visionary decision."
In December, Mr. Markey had written the two companies' chief executives, as well as other cable and telephone industry leaders, expressing concern that less affluent school districts could be left thumbing for a ride on the information highway. He asked each of the companies to outline their plans for providing advanced telecommunications services to schools at an affordable price.
Yesterday, Mr. Smith answered with a public reassurance. "The social benefits of a national information infrastructure can be profound and can be provided to all that need it," he said.
By quickly giving Mr. Markey the kind of answer he wanted, Bell Atlantic and TCI stole a march on their less politically savvy rivals in the telephone and cable industries. Those companies will now come under pressure to match the offer, but they can't expect much public relations benefit if they do.
The two companies' rush to make the announcement before anyone else was apparent in a lack of details about the plan.
There was no estimate of the cost to the companies, although executives said it would come out of the $15 billion previously allocated to upgrading of the network to carry video, telephone and data services.
Mr. Rabe said it was also unclear which services would be entirely free to the schools and which could involve some charges. Left open was the question of whether the new package of free services could alter the tariff C&P would charge for its proposed "distance learning" network.
The firms said they will be making a series of announcements in coming weeks, providing more information about their education-related plans. They pledged to consult extensively with educators about which features would be most useful.