Info-access for kids

In a five-city, multimedia presentation, the toppers of Bell Atlantic Corp. and its soon-to-be subsidiary, Tele-Communications Inc., discussed how they will pave offramps from the infopike to the doorsteps of schools.

In a move partly designed as a way to quiet congressional and regulatory concern over the massive merger, the two companies committed to giving schools free access to the interactive infrastructure they are developing for commercial use. The system will allow students to tap into databases, parents to communicate easily with teachers, and teachers to conduct classes even if students are miles away.

“We have a responsibility to demonstrate that this merger will yield benefits both in the public and private sector,” said Ray Smith, Bell Atlantic chairman and CEO. “This is a step in that direction.”

The plan will link more than 26,000 elementary and secondary schools in areas served by the two companies to databases and educational cable programming. While Bell Atlantic and TCI plan to spend $ 15 billion in the next five years to develop the necessary infrastructure, Smith said the companies “haven’t quantified the exact cost” of the schools program.

Some in Washington have suggested that the companies need to prove that their merger is in the public interest. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and finance, sent a letter last year to both companies encouraging them to link schools to their networks. On Monday, Markey called the Bell Atlantic-TCI announcement a “visionary decision.”

“All children, not just those of the wealthy … will have access, regardless of income, regardless of geography,” Markey said.

And, indeed, the companies acknowledged that Markey’s letter and veiled Washington threats to delay their merger led, in part, to Monday’s announcement.

“We do take some guidance from public policy concerns,” said Robert Thomson, TCI VP of government relations. “We should look to them for advice.”

And John Malone, TCI prexy and CEO, also called the move one of “enlightened self-interest.”

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