Baltimore County will be one of the first areas targeted by a nationwide effort by the cable television industry to equip nearly every school in the nation with a high-speed cable TV modem and access to the Internet.
At a Washington news conference, executives of an array of cable companies said yesterday that the school giveaways will follow the expansion of the industry's network of fiber-optic cable, which is gradually replacing older copper wire-based transmission.
They plan to give away 3,000 systems to schools in 60 communities during the first year of the program, including Baltimore County, and expand it gradually as fiber-optic cable replaces copper-based systems.
Officials of Comcast Corp., which serves Baltimore County and parts of Harford and Howard counties, said the first systems should be in Baltimore County schools as early as this fall. But details of how fast the network will spread are still being worked out.
"We're in discussions with Baltimore County schools about which [school] makes sense" to be the first to get the system, said Jay Gamble, Comcast's area vice president for metropolitan Baltimore. He said Comcast's $100 million fiber-optic upgrade of its Baltimore operations will be finished by 1998.
A spokeswoman for Tele-Communications Inc., which provides cable service to Baltimore, said the company hopes to begin hooking up city schools by late 1997.
The effort is one of many by telecommunications companies to link schools to the Internet. For example, Gov. Parris N. Glendening last month announced a $52.8 million plan to link Maryland schools to the Internet by year's end, among other computer-related initiatives. Companies in the computer, telephone service, telephone equipment and Internet access businesses are all part of that plan.
Combined with cable modems that take advantage of cable's wide spectrum for transmitting data, the fiber-optic cables will let schoolchildren communicate much faster and much more broadly, and will let many more of them use the Internet at one time than current systems allow.
"The ability to move images and graphics over fiber is phenomenal," said Thomas W. Small, director of technology for Harford County schools. "That's the next frontier. Can you imagine children in Harford County being able to communicate with children in Africa and Asia, in real-time format? It opens some incredible possibilities."
Comcast executives said the cable modems transmit data over cable lines up to 1,000 times faster than modems that use conventional telephone wires. But because the design of cable modems requires many users to share one cable line, which slows transmissions, they may only be 300 times faster than today's systems in ordinary use.
That may make little difference for some users transmitting simple text, but it can greatly change the computing life of someone who downloads pictures and other more complicated data from the Internet.
"The difference is between minutes and seconds," said Kieran Taylor, a broadband consultant with TeleChoice Inc. of Verona, N.J. "Downloading a picture from the Internet can take three to five minutes. With a cable modem, it can be 10 seconds."
While officials at Comcast's corporate headquarters insisted that their motives for the program are strictly altruistic, others see a commercial purpose behind the giveaway as well.
The cable modem is at the heart of the cable industry's hopes to push into the local telephone service business. The industry openly hopes that the new modems' ability to transmit data faster than ordinary phones will give cable companies a foothold in the phone market and that giving the service to students will be a way of cementing customer loyalties early.
This strategy has precedents in high-tech and new media: Apple Computer Corp. gained customers by giving computers to schools, and professional database operations like Lexis-Nexis often give away their services at law schools as marketing tools.
"I think that's essentially on target," said David Nevins, a spokesman for Comcast's local operations. "You could see it as both a community service venture and a marketing venture."
But phone companies hardly plan to turn over their business to Comcast without a fight. Executives of Bell Atlantic Corp. touted their own high-speed Integrated Service Digital Network, which transmits at least four times faster than ordinary modems and is already widely available.
They added that phone companies are working on a next-generation technology, called Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Lines, which they say will be faster than cable modems and offer greater quality and flexibility. Bell Atlantic Vice President Curt Koeppen said ADSL should be ready by mid- to late 1997.
"ADSL will probably garner more of the Internet access market than cable modems," Taylor predicted.
"Everyone is wondering what is going to happen," he said. "There's a lot of money behind each approach."
More than 30 of Baltimore County's 160 schools already have Internet access, though not the high-speed kind Comcast is planning. At some schools, access is available only at one computer; others provide it at various sites throughout the school.
In Howard County, 12 schools currently have Internet access. The county plans to provide access to all 60 schools by the end of this year.
Five of Harford County's 49 schools have direct Internet access. Each school has a gateway through the state library access system.
Pub Date: 7/10/96