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Clinton Proposes Free Internet Access For All U.S. Schools and Libraries

By Mike Mills and Elizabeth Corcoran
The Washington Post

The Clinton administration proposed Thursday to give every school and library in the United States free basic access to the Internet, with the cost to be paid collectively by the nation's communications carriers.

The plan, announced by President Clinton less than four weeks before the election, must still be approved by federal regulators and faces many technical and financial hurdles. The idea of wiring the nation's classrooms to the Internet has been a staple of administration campaign rhetoric for months.

In a speech Thursday in Knoxville, Tenn., Clinton called on the Federal Communications Commission to approve the plan, which aims "to give every elementary, middle and high school and every library in the country, the lowest possible e-rate' (education rate): free basic service to the Internet."

Clinton also called for $100 million in federal spending starting next year to begin a five-year project to upgrade the Internet for 100 universities, national labs and other federal institutions.

A representative from GOP candidate Bob Dole's campaign staff derided the effort. "Once again, the teachers unions have scared Bill Clinton away from real education reform," said Dole campaign spokeswoman Christina Martin. "Little steps and small programs such as this will do little to ensure safer schools, drug-free schools and quality education for all."

In February, the new telecommunications law guaranteed the nation's grade schools and libraries discounted rates for basic Internet connections. But Congress left the size of the discount up to regulators.

In a filing sent Thursday to the FCC with the endorsement of Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, the administration began to spell out its proposals for how the e-rate would work.

The administration is proposing to create two tiers of discounts. The first would offer free "basic connectivity and Internet access, at adequate transmission speeds" to grade schools and libraries. The cost of a second tier of services, such as video conferencing or higher-speed Internet access, would be discounted - but not free - and influenced by how much the school could afford to pay. Schools and libraries in low-income or rural areas would be entitled to more generous discounts.

The administration gave no estimate of what its plan would cost, and recent studies vary widely. The Commerce Department earlier this year estimated it would require $1.5 billion annually to provide the nation's schools with the most basic telephone-line Internet connections - a figure that does not include monthly Internet access charges, training and computer equipment.