Education advocates are applauding the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for what they view as a victory for distance education. The federal agency has released a decision that will allow future wireless devices to use more space on the airwaves but won’t take away segments used by schools to do so.

In a unanimous vote disclosed Sept. 24, the FCC decided not to give the spectrum outright to wireless telephone companies so they could use it for new devices that deliver high-speed internet access or video on handheld devices. Instead, these companies will have to ask current school and nonprofit licensees to use portions of their spectrum first.

The FCC had been looking for ways to accommodate new wireless technologies for consumers for several months. During that time, education advocates had gone head to head with telecommunications companies to ensure that school districts weren’t forced to give up the wireless spectrum that currently supports distance learning and videoconferencing for thousands of students.

In one scenario floated by the FCC, schools would have been moved from the 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz frequency band—which currently supports Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), a distance-learning technology that has provided educational services to students and teachers since the 1960s—to another portion of the spectrum to make room for advanced wireless solutions (also called third-generation, or 3G, technologies).

The move to a new frequency band would have meant that schools almost certainly would have faced 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 stood to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees if the move had taken place. Many districts 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 no longer needed the district-owned frequency channels, such partnerships no longer would have applied.

“I think the ruling the FCC made was in the best interest of students, educators, and the United States,” said Bob Baker, 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.

The service center has been on an ITFS network for 15 years and uses it for distance education programs, professional development for teachers and administrators, conducting administrative meetings, and going on electronic field trips.

The possibility of simply expelling current licensees from the band was rejected overwhelmingly, said Rodney Small, an economist in the FCC’s office of engineering and technology.

“For the time being, a mobile allocation will be added to the band, but there will not be any possibility of mobile use [within the band] in the immediate future,” Small said.

Although the decision allows for the eventual possibility that companies could use the ITFS spectrum for mobile services, this would require additional rule-making and some significant technological advances, Small explained. Currently, fixed wireless systems—like those operated by schools on ITFS—cannot coexist with mobile systems because of signal interference.

“This means the mobile companies can’t come to schools and say they are going to take over our spectrum. They’d have to ask us for it first,” said Mary Conk, a legislative analyst for the American Association of School Administrators.

Two commissioners, Michael Copps and Gloria Tristani, dissented from part of the opinion, saying that allowing 3G services to one day enter the ITFS spectrum is not in the best interest of schools and nonprofits currently holding licenses.

In a joint statement, Copps and Tristani wrote, “No educational users expressed support for adding a mobile allocation [to the ruling]. Absent evidence that mobility will assist educational users, we risk the unintentional consequence of undermining the mission of the ITFS.”

The dissenting commissioners concluded that while they support the decision not to relocate current licensees, “adding a mobile allocation for the 2500 megahertz band is premature, unwise, and contrary to the statute.”

The terms of agreement are satisfactory to school users of ITFS, however, despite the open-ended nature of the decision, which does not rule out future use of the ITFS spectrum by telecommunications companies.

“There is nothing permanent about any of this, but I think any ruling that maintains the flexibility of license holders is a good thing,” said Houston’s Baker. “There are those who might like to remain exactly as it was, but that is not reality. We’ve got to find ways to coexist with parties with similar interests. Thinking we can keep [ITFS] solely to ourselves is unrealistic.”

Schools that want to apply for a portion of the ITFS spectrum may still do so under the FCC’s ruling.

“If there is a channel still available, then they can apply for a license,” said Small. But rural schools stand a better chance of finding available spectrum on ITFS than those vying for overcrowded urban airwaves, he said.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission and 3G
http://www.fcc.gov/3G

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

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