Text Version

Reed E. Hundt
Chairman, Federal Communications Commission
May 14, 1997
Freedom Forum "Newseum Newsmaker" Address
Arlington, VA

(as prepared for delivery)

Thank you, Adam. It is a pleasure to be able to serve as the inaugural "Newsmaker" here at the Freedom Forum's incredible new museum of journalism. The Freedom Forum has made a tremendous contribution to the cause of free speech and free expression already, with its broad range of activities. Now it has added immeasurably to the Washington area's cultural life with this fascinating institution.

Much of the Newseum is devoted to the history of journalism and the idea of a free press, which has long stood as one of the pillars of a strong and vibrant democracy. I am here today to tell you about what we have been doing at the Federal Communications Commission to make sure that as we move into the next century our schools will produce students capable of leading that democracy and making it, if anything, stronger and more vibrant. It is therefore particularly appropriate that there are so many young people in the audience today, in the studio and watching in Tennessee, because what I want to talk about is the tremendous step forward we have just taken towards connecting every school, every classroom, and every library to the information superhighway by the year 2000.

More than 10 years ago, my friend Vice President Al Gore, (then a Senator from the state of Tennessee), spoke about the importance of connecting every school to the information superhighway so that a little girl in Carthage, Tennessee, would have access to the boundless resources of every major library and database in this country without leaving her hometown.

I understand that there are students from Carthage watching as I speak today, and I am proud to be able to report to them and to everyone else that, because of what the FCC did last week, we are going to be able to deliver on the Vice President's vision and promise.

We gather here in an institution dedicated to journalism. I used to be a journalist, when I was an undergraduate at Yale University in the 1960s, and I remember that the rule then, as it is now, was that every newspaper story should set out the who, what, when, where, and how. That is a pretty good model, so let me talk about what we have done at the FCC in exactly that way.

First, a little out of order, the "what." Last week, my three fellow FCC Commissioners and I voted to set up a system of telecommunications discounts for schools and libraries that buy telecommunications services. Beginning in January 1998, and for every year going forward, an average of $2.25 billion will be available for these discounts every single year. With the money that schools and libraries will be required to put up to match our contribution, this grows to $4 billion: every year there can be $4 billion spent on classroom technology, advanced technology for use only by students. This is new money, money that was never in the system before.

What can schools and libraries do with this money? They can buy virtually any telecommunications technology imaginable, from simple telephone service to high-speed data transmission and beyond. They can buy hugely discounted Internet access and thread wires all throughout a campus or a school system to create a community network. If their buildings demand it, they can go directly to wireless technology and send information back and forth using wireless modems. And because of these discounts, they can do all this for as little as 10 percent of what it would ordinarily cost.

The "who" is a big group of public officials and educators who realized over the last few years that connecting the nation's classrooms and giving students access to advanced telecommunications services was vitally important to assuring America's preeminence as a democracy and a world power into the next century and beyond.

The Vice President, as I said, recognized this almost 20 years ago and he has made bringing technology to classrooms a priority of his throughout his entire career in public service.

Senators Olympia Snowe of Maine and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia decided a few years ago that, when Congress reformed the telephone and telecommunications industry, it should provide an ironclad guarantee that every classroom would be connected to the information superhighway. These two Senators and several enlightened colleagues included a provision in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that ordered the FCC -- me and my three fellow commissioners -- to provide discounts to schools and libraries when they purchase telecommunications services.

At this point, the education community -- nationwide groups of teachers, parents, school administrators, and librarians -- stepped in and told the FCC that this was a goal of theirs, too. For over a year, they worked closely with the FCC and with a number of state officials to craft a system that would provide these discounts.

Those are the people who made it their mission to bring technology to the classrooms, and quickly. But no discussion of the "who" would be complete if I did not talk about the beneficiaries of these discounts: students. Right now, only 65% of the nation's schools have access to the Internet. To me that does not sound like a large number, particularly when you consider that access to the Internet can mean simply that a school has one computer with America OnLine software. Fourteen percent of the nation's classrooms are connected.

What is worse, far worse, is that computers and technology are not spread evenly throughout the student population. Every study tells us that poor students have far less access to technology than rich ones, both at school and at home. That kind of inequity has created a gap between technology haves and have nots and that gap is going to grow if we don't act now.

When you realize that the highest paying, most sought after jobs in the economy are going to require computer literacy by early in the next century, then you understand why I believe we have such a long way to go.

"When"? Now. Your schools and libraries are going to have to apply for these discounts, and as much money as there is in this Fund, there is still no guarantee that any school will get it. Back home, in Carthage Tennessee and everywhere else, your schools and libraries should be planning for the future, forming alliances with each other so that every village, town and city will be a community network. They should be contacting local phone companies, cable companies, and internet service providers and telling them that they want advice on how to set up these advanced networks.

They should be planning lessons that integrate technology and training teachers to use it. They should be finding advanced multimedia computers to hook onto the ends of the wires that are going to come poking out of the walls in the very near future.

The "where" is every corner of every state in the nation. Congress told us when they passed the Telecommunications Act that Americans everywhere deserve and have a right to access to the same telecommunications services, regardless of where they live. It is simply no longer acceptable that students in the most rural and isolated areas should have limited access to advanced telecommunications because the cost of service is so high where they live. Nor is it acceptable that students who use inner city public libraries are limited to the contents of the musty, rotting card catalogue at the back of the first floor of the local branch.

Several months ago I visited the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and saw the wonderful Sailor system, the pride of Maryland. With this statewide network you can walk into any branch of the state library system and have access to public records and general information you could have seen only in one place just a couple of years ago.

Finally, the "how." The only way our classrooms and libraries will be connected in time for the next century is with the involvement of the entire community. Until now, it has often been enough that some volunteers could get together on a weekend and string some copper wire through a building and call that a connection. Attach a computer to the end of the wire and you had a modern, state of the art classroom.

Those days are past. The Department of Education tells us that it takes five computers per classroom for technology to be a truly integral part of a school's educational mission. Those computers need to be networked together, they need to be fast and have tons of memory, they need access to the Internet at speeds high enough that eager young minds can download as much information as they want with no waiting.

I am telling you that this will take a tremendous amount of work and a monumental commitment on the part of every community in the nation. The students in this room and those watching anywhere else can be the leaders of this revolution. They can be the catalysts for this remarkable transformation from classrooms of the past to classrooms of the future. It will not be easy, but I guarantee you that the story we write together will have a happy ending.