The cable industry continues to make strides in its
outreach to schools, with one eye on philanthropy and another on benefits -- both of the
public-relations variety and the more tangible, economic variety.
'Education has been the cornerstone of our
community-relations and community-service efforts,' said Nancy Larkin, former vice
president of community relations at MediaOne, who took a similar position at Cablevision
Systems Corp. several months ago. 'We know from our customers that education is very
important for them.'
Besides the image-enhancing value of spending millions of
dollars to wire schools, cable operators have their eye on the bottom line: Kids who watch
cable programming or who are connected to the Internet via cable modems in school are good
ambassadors for cable at home, and they become good paying customers later.
Cox Communications Inc. was one of the founders of Cable in
the Classroom, and the MSO continues to provide commercial-free programming and services
to public and private schools for grades kindergarten through 12. Cox chairman Jim Robbins
is also chairman of the program this year.
'There is an honest, socially redeeming value for
business and industry in aligning with education,' said David Andersen, Cox's
vice president of public affairs. 'It feels good, and it really does do good.'
CIC managing director Megan Hookey said the free-cable
initiative reaches over 77,000 schools, allowing teachers to integrate commercial-free
programming into their lesson plans.
'That allows cable companies to get a toe in and
discover what educators want and need, as well as what the cable industry can provide
free-of-charge,' Hookey said. 'It's a steppingstone into deeper
relationships with the schools -- perhaps the cable companies can be not only technical
advisers, but also build LANs [local-area networks].'
Moving aggressively in this area is Comcast Corp., which
has installed free modems in more than 100 schools in its six markets. Comcast's
turnkey server provides the schools with such elements as high-speed Internet access,
news-group access and e-mail.
The company also maintains a Web site (www.onlineschoolyard.com)
for grades K-12, with links to about 600 of the top educational sites on the Web.
'Lots of educational content on the Net is gamey, or
at least not very educational,' said Susan Murphy, education sales and marketing
manager at Comcast. 'We pull together lots of content in one place, and we've
gotten great testimonials from teachers, students and parents alike.'
Meanwhile, MediaOne is touting its MediaOne Express
high-speed Internet service.
MediaOne is also involved in an educational Web site,
partnering with Discovery Channel in 'Ultimate Inventions,' whereby students
create their own inventions and post them at www.mediaone.com/inventtoc.html.
Lesson plans are available for teachers, and winning students are flown with their
families to Washington, D.C., to patent their creations.
Larkin sees her former company's commitment to
education as a constantly growing one. 'As we build up our systems and schools become
more sophisticated in LANs and WANs [wide-area networks], we have an important role to
play not just in helping the school internally, but in the home-school interconnection,
with the ability to check homework online or to e-mail your teacher.'
The company has also implemented its 'Widening Our
World by One' program, providing employees with training and tools to stay connected
with the classroom. Employees receive a teaching tool kit about how to use the Internet,
and they can volunteer to work with children at a school; for their first four hours, they
can earn $250 in cash to give to the classroom.
'When you talk about education and where it's
going, we think that our employees are some of our best ambassadors,' Larkin said.
'And as we re-craft our infrastructure, we've found that's the best way to
maintain contact with the schools.'
Cox has also been aggressive in this area. Late last year,
it partnered with Disney Channel on a simultaneous online chat with 5,000 schoolchildren
and a Disney animator in Burbank, Calif. The project involved 20 schools, including
systems in San Diego and Orange County, Calif.; Hampton Roads, Va.; and Warwick, R.I.
The program also served to test Cox's cable-modem
initiative, which offers one free modem in areas where Cox maintains service, according to
community-relations coordinator Kathy Hutchison. 'We were able to test our technology
while making learning fun,' she said.
'We're very excited because it worked -- a lot of
school systems go with WANs or LANs instead of a single cable, so this was a great test of
Cable companies are not the only service providers to
schools; telephone companies are also involved.
'Clearly, telephones and other technologies are
increasingly becoming critical tools for learning, whether it's at schools or
somewhere else,' said Pat Willis, director of corporate and educational affairs for
BellSouth Corp. 'There have long been telephones at school, and there is now an
opportunity to make technology more important on the instructional side. Educators have
been asking for it.'
BellSouth has wired five or six classrooms in over 4,000
schools with Internet access, Willis said, in addition to providing speaker phones and
offering Internet accounts for teachers at home.
Teachers can also apply for grants of up to $2,000 under a
BellSouth Foundation program to buy software or hardware or to complete computer training.
'Now we're looking into a way to engage the whole
community, without necessarily taking money out of the tax base,' Willis said. As
customers sign up for its Internet service, at no extra charge, they can set aside $1 of
their monthly bill toward the school of their choice. The school can then take a credit
toward an Internet account or a Web service, or it can cash it in for 60 cents on the
Underscoring the image of the cable operator as a good
community citizen is key -- although there can be more tangible benefits, as well.
'BellSouth has always been strongly involved with
education as part of our community service,' Willis said. 'Now we are merging
our community and business interests to make them more efficient for schools.
'The schools will buy more equipment and services as
the technology evolves,' she added. 'If we don't provide a quality of
service and a customization of that service, that leaves it open to our competitors to
'From a public-relations standpoint, it's real
value,' Larkin said. 'As far as help for our business, which is important, by
creating applications that fully utilize broadband services, the kids get used to it, and
we can then market it to the parents.'
Although MediaOne has no solid data to support this theory,
Larkin said she does have 'a lot of anecdotal evidence.'
Hutchison agreed: 'The kids see the value of our
technology in the schools, and they take that home with them to their parents,' she
Murphy said Comcast is already seeing economic benefits
from its 'Schoolwide Solution' program, which offers a free modem to an Internet
server, noting that a fee is charged for the server, as well as an additional fee per work
'Schools often have to look at traditional telecom
solutions,' she said, 'meaning that they need to buy software and hardware, pay
for telephone lines, maintain Internet and e-mail servers and software. We wrap it all in
one neat turnkey package, at an extremely competitive price.'
Liz Laszlo, director of public affairs for the National
Cable Television Association, stressed the community service being provided by such
initiatives as its High-Speed Education Connection and the potential long-term benefits to
'That is an example of combining our technology with
our commitment to education to once again provide an opportunity for teachers to do what
they do better,' she said, adding that the organization spends millions of dollars to
provide free modems and free high-speed access to schools.
'It's not necessarily a profitable thing, but it
is the right thing to do,' she said, adding that the technology and training that
they provide 'we hope also showcases what we have to offer. If they know about our
superior technology, they may come to us as a provider, so there's a potential profit
Andersen agreed that 'those relationships with schools
can lead to business ventures also. We provide commercial-free programming and services to
public and private schools ... and that can help to build a bridge to providing services
for a fee.
'And there are opportunities with the Universal
Service Fund, sketchy as they may be,' he added, 'opportunities for education
and service providers alike.'