Because of the burgeoning frequency requirements for cell phones, pagers, and other wireless devices, some school districts could lose substantial funding or incur significant new costs. The risk comes as a result of new spectrum-reallocation proposals now before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC is looking for ways to accommodate new wireless technologies for consumers. Consequently, school districts might be forced to give up a portion of the wireless spectrum that currently supports distance learning and videoconferencing for thousands of students.

In one of many possible FCC scenarios, educators would not lose access to this spectrum entirely. Instead, some school districts that hold licenses in the portion of the spectrum now reserved for educational applications would be moved to another band of frequencies, as the FCC tries to make room for advanced wireless solutions (also called third-generation, or 3G, technologies).

But if that were to happen, some communities could lose their educational services altogether, while others could face new equipment costs, disruption or curtailment of service, lower quality of service, or signal interference, according to Wireless Education Broadband (WEB) NOW, a campaign to preserve the portion of the wireless spectrum devoted to education.

What’s more, school districts stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees if the move were to occur. Many districts now lease their excess spectrum capacity to companies such as WorldCom or Sprint in exchange for computer labs, equipment, broadband access, or cash. If these companies don’t follow the districts to their new frequency channels, such partnerships no longer would apply.

The spectrum battle

According to the FCC, the number of subscribers to wireless services such as mobile cell phones, pagers, and personal digital assistants more than doubled from 1996 to 1999, to more than 86 million users.

As the demand for mobile data services—such as wireless internet access, eMail, and short messaging services—continues to grow, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is developing standards for 3G technologies, estimates that 160 megahertz (MHz) of additional spectrum will be needed to meet the projected requirements of 3G technologies by 2010.

To accommodate this demand, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) Jan. 5, seeking comment on several possible solutions. This NPRM (FCC Document No. 00-455) proposed using any, or all, of five frequency bands currently used for other applications to support emerging 3G technologies.

One of the frequency bands in question, 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz, is shared by the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), a distance-learning technology that has provided educational services to students and teachers since the 1960s, and the Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service (MMDS), a fixed wireless broadband service provided by a commercial entity.

ITFS licenses are only available to K-12 and higher-education institutions engaged in the formal education of students, or nonprofit organizations providing educational programming for schools and communities.

“There are between 2,000 and 3,000 [ITFS] license holders, and of those, about 750 are K-12 schools,” said Mary Conk, a legislative analyst for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). “But what many [people] don’t realize is that ITFS affects not only those license holders, but also any schools in the areas covered by those licenses.”

ITFS is used for a broad range of services, from in-service teacher training to classroom instruction for students.

“Initially, the ITFS spectrum was given out in the 1960s as one-way analog,” said Conk. “Schools have traditionally used the spectrum for internal television stations to deliver professional development.”

About three years ago, ITFS license holders were given the opportunity to use digital technologies—and the results have been “amazing,” Conk said: “Only recently have we been able to do bigger and better things with this, like [offering] high-speed broadband access and wireless [service].”

Almost all of California’s professional development occurs over ITFS, Conk said. California education officials “have used it very effectively for alternative certification classes to get teachers at inner-city schools certified.”

Schools also use the ITFS spectrum to offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

“There are lots of schools without the staff to offer an entire [AP] section, and this is a great way to deliver it,” said Conk. But many schools use the ITFS spectrum to offer general courses, too, she added.

For instance, Conk said, Kansas requires its students to take a certain number of foreign language classes to graduate, but many rural schools don’t have the capacity to hire more than one teacher to teach foreign languages. Many of these underserved schools use the ITFS spectrum to offer these courses via distance learning, she said.

Potential impact

According to the FCC, if ITFS has to make room for commercial 3G applications, schools would not have their spectrum taken away entirely; instead, they would be relocated to another part of the spectrum. One plan suggested by the FCC would set aside 90 MHz of the 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz spectrum band for emerging wireless services, leaving 100 MHz for ITFS and MMDS.

Though it’s only one of several possible scenarios, the education community has expressed “major concerns” about moving ITFS from its current portion of the spectrum, said Conk. Besides the disruption in service that could occur, schools also fear they’ll lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from partnerships with MMDS providers using the same spectrum band.

Currently, many school districts operate in a symbiotic relationship with wireless MMDS companies such as WorldCom and Sprint, with the districts allowing these companies to use an extra channel or two in exchange for a fee and the opportunity to develop new wireless technologies at the schools.

“That has been really important, because most schools don’t have the capital to develop wireless technologies by themselves,” said Conk. “If we were [to be] moved, it has been said that our commercial partners would not go with us. They are established in this portion of the spectrum, and the cost for them to change over would be astronomical.” Bob Baker is the director of technology services at Houston Region 4 Education Service Center, an organization that includes 54 school districts and approximately 900,000 students—about 25 percent of the state’s enrollment.

“We’ve been on an ITFS network for 15 years,” Baker said. “We use it for all our traditional distance education programs, including for-credit programs in rural areas, professional development for teachers and administrators, conducting administrative meetings, and going on electronic field trips.”

The Houston service center has had a partnership with its local cable wireless operator, Sprint Broadband Group, for several years.

“They’ve provided us with the access to some wireless cable learning channels, they pay for upgrades and maintenance on the transmitter, they pay for FCC [legal filings], and they pay us a monthly royalty fee,” Baker said.

The service center holds licenses for eight channels in the Houston area, only three of which are used for its own programming. The other five are leased to Sprint.

“My understanding is that the proposed area [of spectrum] we’d be moved to would not be of interest [to Sprint],” said Baker. “We’d be moved for free, but the cost of operating the network would not be recovered from our districts. We’d either have to underwrite it somehow or shut it down.”

The move would mean the loss of $10,000 per month in fees and services to the 54 school districts represented by the service center, he said.

“Without our wireless partners, we’d be dead in the water,” Baker said.

The telcos’ side

In petitions filed with the FCC, some wireless telecommunications carriers that don’t own MMDS licenses have asked the agency to open a portion of the ITFS/MMDS band for 3G use. Many of these companies have cited the fact that current ITFS license holders already lease portions of unused spectrum to commercial companies as evidence that 3G technologies can be accommodated easily on this spectrum band.

For example, Verizon Wireless pointed out that “while it was originally allocated for the transmission of instructional programming, this [2500 MHz to 2690 MHz] band is now predominantly used for commercial purposes. In the past, when the [FCC] determined that spectrum was not being used predominantly for its intended purpose, it has reallocated a portion of the band to accommodate other services needing spectrum. The [FCC] should take the same action here.”

A spokesman for Verizon Wireless declined to comment on the company’s position or how it may affect current ITFS license holders.

Groups such as AASA and the National ITFS Association, which launched WEB NOW, are urging educators to contact their legislators and the FCC to express their concern with the potential relocation of ITFS.

FCC spokesman Brad Lerner said the agency could not comment about ITFS and 3G at this time, because its “notice of proposed rule making” is still pending.

“It’s a restrictive proceeding, so we can’t answer specific questions at this time,” said Lerner. “But I can say we have made no decisions yet, and [moving ITFS] is only one option we’re discussing.”

Links:

FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making
http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Engineering_Technology/Notices/2000/fcc00455.pdf

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

Houston Region 4 Education Service Center
http://www.esc4.net

National ITFS Association
http://www.itfs.org

WEB NOW
http://www.itfs.org/webnow

Verizon Wireless
http://www.verizonwireless.com