To facilitate the provision of fixed and mobile broadband access in schools and other locations, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking comments about how best to reconfigure a substantial portion of federal airwaves now dedicated to educational broadcasts.

The commission hopes its proposed rules changes will spawn competition, innovation, and investment in wireless broadband services, as well as build out the educational services offered within the spectrum band in question. But critics fear the proposal actually will undermine the delivery of educational services to students and teachers by eroding the number of license holders that are educational institutions.

At issue is the future of the 2500-2690 MHz spectrum 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.

FCC officials and other stakeholders agree this portion of spectrum is underused, and the agency’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeks comment on how best to promote increased access to and efficient use of available ITFS spectrum. For example, the notice considers both a geographic licensing approach and an unlicensed approach for schools using the spectrum.

But another section of the proposal—which would allow schools and universities to auction off unused portions of the spectrum to private-sector companies—is more controversial.

Supporters say the plan would enhance the delivery of wireless broadband services to consumers while giving financial relief to cash-strapped schools. Critics say it threatens the very future of ITFS, as schools that currently hold licenses might feel pressure to unload them to the highest bidder.

The proposition is likely to hit a nerve among policy makers, educators, and other stakeholders—all of whom will be asked to consider whether a near-term fiscal crisis of historic proportions outweighs the potential for schools to acquire additional federal airspace and broadband access in years to come.

“The NPRM asks whether the commission should remove the requirement that ITFS licensees use the spectrum entrusted to them for educational purposes. It also asks whether the commission should allow ITFS licensees to sell their licenses to the highest bidder, where a private company could buy the spectrum and dispense with any educational activity,” said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. “Such an outcome would threaten this important educational tool. If ITFS becomes just another commercial service, we will have lost the last place on the spectrum reserved specifically for education.”

Not everyone sees it that way. Some officials contend the proposed rule change would allow the spectrum to achieve its full potential—something it has yet to do in more than four decades of outright ownership by schools.

“I don’t know if this spectrum is best used to offer a third broadband pipe to the home, a mobile solution, a broadcast alternative, or some other market-driven product, but I am willing to ask the question,” wrote FCC Commissioner Katherine Abernathy in a statement about the proposal. She concluded: “Underutilized and unused spectrum has little value.”

The 190 MHz of contiguous spectrum at issue “is roughly equal to all spectrum currently devoted to terrestrial, mobile wireless,” said FCC Chairman Michael Powell. “But the 2.5 GHz band has not yet delivered similar rewards, in no small part because of the well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided, regulatory decisions of this agency.”

Powell called the commission’s current regulations “complex” and “stifling.” He said he was looking forward to the rule change as a way “for the American people to enjoy the full potential of a large parcel of previously underutilized, prime spectrum real estate.”

According to FCC officials, educational uses for the spectrum have grown tremendously since it transmitted its first television broadcasts in 1963.

As it stands today, approximately 1,275 ITFS licensees serve millions of students on thousands of channels at more than 70,000 locations throughout the U.S. The licensees form a broad spectrum of educators and educational entities, including state governments, state universities, public colleges, secondary schools, elementary schools, parochial and private schools, public television stations, and hospitals, the FCC said.

Schools use the ITFS spectrum for a variety of applications, including professional development, online advanced certification courses for staff, and traditional educational programming, as well as advanced-placement courses and back-office administrative communications.

The NPRM is the result of a joint request last October by the Wireless Communications Association International, the National ITFS Association, and the Catholic Television Network. The three entities represent the interests of licensees on the 2500-2690 MHz band.

“I applaud the work of the National ITFS Association, the Wireless Communications Association International, and the Catholic Television Network to develop proposals for the evolution of this band and to expand opportunities for all licensees to achieve their missions,” Powell said. “I look forward to continuing our work with them to eliminate the regulatory barriers that have hindered the development of this band for far too many years.”

According to Todd Gray, an attorney representing the National ITFS Association, “The essence of the proposal was to reorganize the frequency band to make it much more user-friendly.” Gray said the evolution of the spectrum from a one-way broadcasting channel to a two-way data pipeline has given way to a host of new opportunities for schools.

Although the association favors building out the capabilities of the spectrum band for video and data transmissions, Gray said it is opposed to the idea of schools selling high-dollar spectrum real estate for a profit.

“The educational value should be preserved,” he said. “It would be ironic if the way the [FCC] intends to improve the band is by allowing educators to sell it off.”

This isn’t the first time the FCC has considered realigning the spectrum band in question. Two years ago, eSchool News reported that the agency was searching for ways to accommodate the growing demand for consumer wireless solutions and was considering a proposal to move ITFS license holders to another band of frequencies so it could make room for new wireless innovations.

But schools were quick to contest the move, claiming it would curtail service and cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the transition. The FCC ultimately decided against the proposal.

FCC officials say they don’t know how long it will take them to rule on this latest NPRM, which at press time had yet to be posted to the agency’s web site. Once it is posted, schools and other stakeholders will have 90 days to file their comments.

FCC Commissioner Copps cautioned that it would be a mistake to lose site of the irreplaceable value the spectrum band has provided to schools.

“The paramount public interest in the ITFS spectrum should continue to be to support an educational programming mission. While we must seek to find improvements that will result in the ITFS spectrum being used more intensively—and we must admit that the current use of ITFS is not as intense as it could be—our goal must be to do this in a way that promotes the educational mission,” Copps said.

“ITFS certainly has its problems,” he added. “It worries me greatly that many licensees lease such a high percentage of their spectrum to companies that do not engage in education, and that some licensees have not built out their facilities even though they have had licenses for many years. But I would rather work to make ITFS a better educational tool than say that it cannot be saved.”

Links:

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

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

Wireless Communications Association International
http://www.wcai.com/