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 the public 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 proposalwhich would allow schools and universities to auction off unused portions of the spectrum to private-sector companiesis 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 stakeholdersall 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 potentialsomething 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.”
About 1,275 ITFS licensees serve millions of students at more than 70,000 locations throughout the U.S. The licensees form a broad spectrum of educational entities, including state governments, state universities, elementary and secondary schools, parochial and private schools, public television stations, and hospitals.
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.
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.”
FCC officials say they don’t know how long it will take them to rule on this 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.
See these related links:
Federal Communications Commission
National ITFS Association
Wireless Communications Association International