Telecommunications and Networking

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Two noteworthy and memorable events occurred this February. The first was the signing of the National Telecommunication bill on February 8, 1996. The second, on February 14, 1996, celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer). The first event will have great impact on the use of telecommunications in education, and the second marked the beginning of "the computer age."

New Legislation

The Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 marks the first major change in the nation's basic communications law since 1934. It is anticipated we all shall receive the benefits of lower prices, better quality and more choices in our telephone and cable services, with phone companies offering video services to their customers and cable companies offering telephone services.

The bill's impact on education could be substantial, since the intent is that schools and certain non-profit organizations receive favorable treatment &emdash; presumably lower rates. A National Educational Technology Funding Corporation (NETFC) is to offer financial and other assistance for states to provide services to schools and libraries. The Act calls for a number of activities over the next 30 months. For example:

  • A board is to be appointed by March, 1996, to "recommend changes in rules and regulations to implement the Act."
  • By May, 1997, recommendations must include definitions of services and a specific time table. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) must expand the definition of universal service "to include access to advanced telecommunications and information services." Schools and libraries will be entitled to a direct discount determined by the FCC.
  • By August, 1999, the FCC is to conduct inquiries to determine progress including access of schools and libraries to advanced telecommunications.

As stated in a 1994 U.S. Dept. of Commerce Report, Putting the Information Infrastructure to Work: "Our nation will become a place where students of all ages and abilities reach the highest standards in academic achievement. Teachers, engineers, business managers and all knowledge workers will constantly be exposed to new methods and will collaborate and share ideas with one another."

ENIAC's Birthday

The second event, which occurred on Valentine's Day at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Engineering and Applied Science, commemorated the 50th anniversary of ENIAC, the world's first programmable computer. It was a very exciting day as computer pioneers were honored and the day acclaimed as a major American birthday to mark the beginning of the computer industry.

Vice President Gore reactivated ENIAC as he flipped a switch, the tubes and circuitry within counted up to 46, added 50, and correctly displayed the lights representing 96. Its first public demonstration, exactly 50 years ago, marked the dawn of the Information Age.

Built at Penn as a secret wartime project to enable the U.S. Army to handle the complex mathematical calculations necessary to produce artillery firing tables, ENIAC was introduced as "an electronic brain that can 'think' a million times faster than Einstein." Culminating two years' work by 200 people, at a cost of $450,000, ENIAC consisted of nearly 18,000 vacuum tubes linked by 500,000 soldered connections, 6,000 switches, 17,000 resistors and 20 banks of flashing lights.

In his address before turning on ENIAC, Vice President Gore reminded us of the role of the federal government in computing endeavors. In 1943, initial funding was provided to develop the electronic machine. In 1967, a federal grant through the Defense Department Research Project Agency created ARPANET. "Over a million scientists and engineers began to share expensive computers over a network that could withstand a nuclear attack. ARPANET helped 'spark' the Internet… and the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative, a federal research and development program, helped 'spark' the World Wide Web."

Responsibility

The role of the federal government in the development of computers and communications has been substantial. However, the responsibility for bringing educational institutions "online" and creating conditions in which all students learn to the best of their ability is not the sole responsibility of the federal government, but requires federal, state, regional and local cooperation.

If we are to provide the educational opportunities essential today, President Clinton stated in his 1996 State of the Union address, "Every classroom in America must be connected to the Information Highway, with computers, good software and well-trained teachers."

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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