US West gives $55M to Ore. schools

Every Oregon high school student and teacher will benefit from advanced telecommunications technologies within the next two years, thanks to a new law enacted to deregulate the state’s telephone companies.

U.S. West, the state’s largest phone company, agreed to pay a total of $119 million for telecommunications improvements to schools and rural communities to help win passage of the law, which frees phone companies from state regulation of their profits.

Under the law passed by the 1999 Oregon Legislature, the state Public Utility Commission (PUC) won’t regulate profits but can instead set price caps on services.

U.S. West officials presented Gov. John Kitzhaber with a $25 million check in January—the first of two payments to the Connecting Oregon Communities Fund, for distribution to K-12 schools by the Oregon Department of Education. U.S. West is scheduled to make another $25 million grant to the fund in 2001.

“This check represents an opportunity for all of Oregon’s K-12 schools—urban and rural—to invest in technology that will be essential in the 21st century,” Kitzhaber said.

He said the heavily lobbied bill underwent many changes during the legislative session but ended up being “a good deal for consumers.”

The money will be used to install internet access—as well as two-way video and audio hook-ups—in all 200 Oregon high schools, said Larry Austin, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

The two-way hook-ups will be interactive, allowing teachers and students throughout the state to communicate live, Austin said.

For example, teachers can use the equipment to teach classes in areas where specialized courses—such as Japanese—cannot be offered. And educators will be able to make presentations on new curricula and teaching strategies to colleagues throughout the state.

A big benefit for Board of Education members will be the ability to communicate instantly with schools throughout the state, rather than mailing lengthy course materials to individual schools. Instant messaging will be crucial during emergencies as well, Austin said.

U.S. West spokesman Jim Haynes said that U.S. West, a local internet service provider, or even a different telephone company could install a school’s connections. Details of the plan are still being worked out, he said.

Before the new bill passed, U.S. West had been operating under “rate return” regulation, which has stifled competition and encouraged a monopoly, according to Kitzhaber’s administration. In compliance with the new law, U.S. West will now operate under a system of price caps.

As part of the deal that led to passage of the deregulation bill, U.S. West also will commit $69 million over four years to improve telecommunications services to rural Oregon communities.

The plan for improving rural service calls for developing high-capacity, high-speed lines; building alternate telecommunications routes; and speeding up the installation of advanced telecommunications services in rural areas.

The state PUC was sharply critical of initial versions of the bill, saying that U.S. West was trying to reduce potential refunds and rate reductions for its customers. But PUC member Joan Smith called the final legislation a benefit for consumers.

The PUC will continue to regulate the rates a company can charge for basic phone service, Smith said: “Nobody’s going to get a dial tone that costs a bazillion dollars.”

Plus, she said, the new law gives the PUC the power to automatically fine companies that don’t meet new minimum standards that are to be adopted. The commission previously had to go to court to impose fines.

U.S. West

Oregon Department of Education

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