Through the program, called WISH TV, students don't need to own a personal computer in their homes. Instead, companies will provide them with free digital set-top boxes for one year that enable them to receive Web services on standard televisions, plus the two-way cable connection needed to access the Internet.
The companies hope the program will expand to more homes each year and reach thousands of students.
About a dozen schools and several hundred students in fourth grade will become the first benefactors this fall. WorldGate Communications, a provider of interactive services using the TV, is spearheading the effort with support from Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who heads the House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee.
Tauzin said when he first saw a demonstration of accessing the Web via a television set last year, "I thought, 'eureka!' This is what we are looking for."
"This is putting kids who can't afford computers on the Internet with their schools and their teachers using their old analog TV sets," Tauzin said.
He and others are hopeful that the program will open new opportunities for educating young adults and their families.
"The idea of putting a PC in the local library was better than nothing but it was far short of bringing the Internet into every household in America," said Hal Krisbergh, chairman and chief executive officer of WorldGate.
Companies such as Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola are together donating thousands of set-top boxes that can be used on TVs in homes and schools.
"This is the right thing to do," said Scientific-Atlanta's vice president of marketing, Perry Tanner. The company, a pioneer in interactive TV, has deployed 2 million set-top boxes. Cable companies are just beginning to offer such services.
Cable operators participating in the launch are giving free connections and WorldGate providers are donating the Internet service. They include Charter Communications, Buckeye CableSystem and Massillon Cable TV Inc.
Once the year is up, however, families probably will have to pay to continue their Internet service from WorldGate and for a cable subscription if they don't have one.
Educators from several universities are developing Web-based curriculum for participating schools to use with children at home.
One sample lesson plan prompts students to collect weather data on high and low temperatures online, which are then plotted on a computer graph.
Janice Stuhlmann Hinson, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Louisiana State University, said the program helps train teachers to use the tool to bolster their curriculum.
"We want the technology to enhance the lesson plans," Hinson said.
According to Tauzin's office and WorldGate, schools where students will get the service this fall include: Belle Rose Primary in Belle Rose, La.; West Ascension Elementary, Donaldsonville, La.; Madison Community Unit 12, Madison, Ill.; Beech Grove, Newman and Moffit Heights elementary schools in Massillon, Ohio; Arlington and Raymer elementary schools in Toledo, Ohio; Hawley, Head O'Meadow, Middle Gate and Sandy Hook elementary schools in Newtown, Conn.; and Oakville Elementary School, St. Louis.
By Kalpana Srinivasan