After a 15-month delay, top state officials finally opened an access ramp to the information highway yesterday, approving a contract with Bell Atlantic that will link every college and high school in Maryland in a "distance learning network."
The project will permit teachers in one part of the state to interact through a two-way, full-motion video link directly with students in other parts of the state. Participants will enjoy the ability to talk to and see one another just as if they were in the same room.
Sites will be connected through a network of high-capacity optical fiber cables that Bell Atlantic is already building throughout Maryland.
State officials eventually want to extend the new digital technology to processing prison inmates, parole revocation hearings, employee training, luring businesses to Maryland and countless other uses. For example, they hope to hook up museums, historical sites and orchestras so they can beam their programs live to far-away viewers.
"Today's kindergartners are the Class of 2007," state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told the Board of Public Works. "The 21st century will be defined by the industries of the mind. Competition will not be in Maryland, not in the United States, but international for these children."
The contract approved by the board will begin Saturday and could bring Bell Atlantic more than $28 million in revenue over five years, most of it from local school boards.
Honoring a pledge it made more than a year ago to help the state's high schools, community colleges and four-year universities get the project up and running, Bell Atlantic has agreed to give $50,000 in video and other equipment to each participating school, a donation that could cost $13.5 million during the first three years.
No school will be required to participate in the program, but those that do will have to pay a fee of $1,365 per month for the first three years and $2,730 per month thereafter. Any school or other entity that participates, however, can cancel at any time with 30 days' notice.
Francis J. Knott, chairman of the governor's advisory Information Technology Board and the man who negotiated the original distance learning deal with Bell Atlantic, said the cost to schools, set by Maryland's Public Service Commission, "is the lowest tariff for this technology in the country."
The contract is almost identical to the one Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his aides secretly negotiated with the telephone company in early 1993 and announced that summer. But representatives of the cable television industry protested, saying neither they nor anyone else were given a chance to bid.
In September 1993, on the advice of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the Schaefer administration agreed to solicit competitive bids. Months were spent drafting a request for proposals, circulating it among potential bidders and awaiting replies.
In the end, Bell Atlantic was the only bidder. The cable companies were not heard from.
Yesterday, as the board unanimously approved the contract, representatives of the Cable Television Association of Maryland, Delaware and D.C. continued to complain, saying the request for bids was drafted in such a way that only Bell Atlantic could comply.
"It's as if you had a contract to buy peaches and we had apples. We couldn't bid," Cable Association President Wayne O'Dell said.
"Well, we wanted peaches," Governor Schaefer shot back.
Lawyer J. Edward Davis said the association has filed a formal protest with the Board of Contract Appeals and asked the board to delay action until a decision on that protest is made.
But the governor replied: "You just want to go to court, to file for an injunction, to delay this for three or four years."