In a preliminary victory for educators, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released a report affirming its strong support for distance learning using the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS). That report has brought relief to hundreds of schools across the country that make use of that broadband service.

The report, titled “Spectrum Study of the 2500 to 2690 MHz Band: The Potential for Accommodating Third-Generation Mobile Systems,” reviews the feasibility of altering the purpose of the 2.5 GHz spectrum, which currently supports ITFS, to accommodate commercial wireless messaging services and other so-called “third-generation,” or 3G, technologies.

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) estimates that 160 megahertz (MHz) of additional spectrum will be needed to meet the projected requirements of these 3G technologies by 2010.

To accommodate this demand, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making on Jan. 5, seeking comment on several possible solutions. The notice 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 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.

“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, even ITFS license-holders that aren’t K-12 schools provide distance-learning applications that reach thousands of communities.

The FCC has assured educators they would not lose access to this spectrum entirely. Instead, some school districts that hold licenses in the portion of the spectrum now reserved for ITFS could be moved to another band to make room for commercial 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.

The FCC’s report agrees with that assertion. The report states that both urban and rural communities and school districts of all sizes use the ITFS system. Any educational entity participating in this system would be adversely affected by changes made by changing the purpose of its spectrum, the report says.

According to the report, adding 3G systems to the education spectrum could cause extensive interference along airwaves in the most populated areas of the country. Also, the addition of the wireless systems would raise significant technical and economic difficulties for current licensees.

The price tag to relocate current ITFS license holders to make room for 3G technologies would be prohibitive, reaching upwards of $19 billion over a 10-year period, the study concludes.

Educators currently using ITFS were encouraged by the FCC’s report.

“It is absolutely critical to our mission that we retain this spectrum as we move into the digital age,” said Carol Woolbright, network director for Greenbush Interactive Distance Learning Network, which delivers distance education to 1,305 students in Eastern Kansas. “I’d urge the FCC strongly to safeguard it into the future for education.”

AASA officials said the report is a step in the right direction, but the fight isn’t over yet.

“The FCC report was a studied, analytical view of this issue that put us in a good position, but it did not make any determinations about the future of ITFS,” said Bruce Hunter, director of public policy at AASA.

AASA’s opponents—primarily telecommunications companies seeking additional spectrum—struck back right away, but Hunter said that’s to be expected.

“They just reiterated that they don’t think we are using our [airwave] space well. But it’s not fair to blast schools for not using broadband across the board yet. We are just getting to the digital age, and we want to plan for the future,” said Hunter. “We have long-term plans for distance learning, and we can’t move ahead into the future if we continue to have our access threatened,” said Ray Cruz, instructional television specialist for Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Miami-Dade uses its spectrum to broadcast two cable channels serving about 340 schools, more than 360,000 K-12 students, and more than 140,000 adult learners daily, with 10,000 hours of programming per year.

The FCC plans to make a decision by July and would auction off licenses for the bands in 2002. Other frequencies under consideration for reallocation include airwaves currently used by the Department of Defense.


Federal Communications Commission

American Association of School Administrators

WEB NOW Greenbush Interactive Distance Learning Network

Miami-Dade Public Schools