The Maine Public Utilities Commission, which three years ago crafted a thoughtful order to connect schools and libraries to the Internet, now is considering ending the program before it has been completed. Such an action would needlessly shortchange students all over Maine.
The Maine School and Library Network began in 1995 when the PUC ordered Nynex — now Bell Atlantic — to spend $4 million a year for five years “to provide schools and libraries a minimum level of connection to high capacity services at the lowest possible cost to Nynex’s customers.” By 2000, the project is expected to be declared completed, but with less than half the $20 million spent.
The PUC was clear in its order about what to do with leftover money: If the program is completed without all the money spent, the remaining portion must be used for toll reductions. Schools and libraries will be wired by 2000 under the current plan, but it would be hard to say the project is done because not nearly enough training has occurred where it is needed most, on-site and with specific systems.
The training involved is not merely being able to search for Web pages. Teachers and librarians must learn how their entire systems work, with their security devices and firewalls, to conduct indepth research and transform the computer from a source of information to a useful teaching tool. It may become the single best way for rural areas of this state to find equality with more populated sections. With adequate training and hardware, geography becomes less and less important.
The Public Advocate’s Office, which wants the remaining $10 million for rate reduction, claims the money amounts to “a hidden tax.” But it is nothing of the sort. First, it isn’t hidden. The PUC has held hearings on the money repeatedly; dozens of news stories have been written about the Schools and Library Network and its funding source. Second, it isn’t a tax. The money is part of a PUC order created because Bell Atlantic collected too much from customers. To correct that, Nynex was ordered for five years to reduce rates equal to $10 million a year and contribute $4 million a year to the schools and libraries project.
Any rate reduction is welcome, but to defund a program all sides say has been extremely helpful in order to give ratepayers a one-year rate decrease of 50 cents a month is penny wise and pound foolish. It may be that phone customers who do not use Bell Atlantic should also contribute to the program, spreading the remaining cost of the program among everyone and reducing the already small cost to Bell Atlantic’s customers.
That’s a decision for another day. The PUC has two years to figure out whether the training and basic computer equipment obtained through the MSLN truly connect Maine students should be completed or yanked halfway through.
It has every reason to fully fund this valuable program.