Proposals To Launch Educational Satellite Are Gaining Support

By Peter West — February 14, 1990 7 min read

More than 30 years after the launch of Sputnik sparked a renewed national commitment to scientific literacy, the chief executive of one the nation’s most educationally troubled states is spearheading a drive to have the United States orbit a satellite dedicated to educational broadcasting.

Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson of Kentucky is proposing that the federal government spend $300 million to design, build, and launch a “public-domain satellite” to transmit distance-learning programming as part of a “national communications ‘highway’ for education.”

Such a satellite “would be a tangible contribution our space program could make to the nation’s educational system,” Mr. Wilkinson argued in a letter to President Bush outlining proposed goals for last September’s education summit in Charlottesville, Va.

As envisioned by Mr. Wilkinson, the project would benefit the growing number of states that use satellite-based distance-learning programs by cutting the costs of competing with well-heeled commercial interests for scarce satellite time. Kentucky expects to invest $20 million in the next biennium in its statewide satellite-education system.

Jack Foster, the state’s education secretary, said that the Democratic Governor broached the idea with Mr. Bush at the summit and that, according to Mr. Wilkinson, “the President related a real interest in the issue and indicated he would follow through on it.”

The Governor’s subsequent request to meet with the President to discuss the proposal was denied, though a spokesman for the White House was unable last week to elaborate on the reasons for the denial.

Mr. Wilkinson is expected to raise the issue again informally at the National Governors’ Association’s meeting here this month.

“He will take the opportunity, every chance he has, to raise the question again,” Mr. Foster said.

‘Not Dead in the Water’

Mr. Foster conceded that the Wilkinson request for Presidential time was acknowledged by what he describes as “clearly a form letter” from Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos. But he insisted that the idea “is not dead in the water.”

Although Mr. Wilkinson still hopes to schedule a White House visit, the official said, “it does not require a meeting with the President to get it done.” He added that “several” governors already have expressed their support for the concept.

In fact, other state leaders apparently have broached plans similar to Mr. Wilkinson’s with the President.

Gov. John Ashcroft of Missouri, a Republican, “shared some of those same thoughts with the President,” at Charlottesville, according to Carter D. Ward, executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association. He was armed at the time, Mr. Ward said, with a plan boosting such an education-related satellite that was devised by the MSBA and the Florida School Boards Association.

Mr. Wilkinson, meanwhile, discussed his proposal last month with Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley and members of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation.

And according to O. Leonard Press, executive director of Kentucky Educational Television, the Organization of State Broadcasting Executives plans to petition the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to fund a feasibility study of the Wilkinson proposal.

“I think it’s significant that 30 state networks that represent the likely markets [for such a satellite] have expressed support for the idea,” he said.

Demand, Costs Likely to Soar

Proponents of such an initiative argue that an education satellite would guarantee states access to broadcasting facilities at a time when the aging of the nation’s satellite fleet and increased demand for new services are resulting in projected shortages of “transponder time.’'

Experts include among those rapidly aging satellites the Spacenet 2 satellite, which is used by many distance-learning services, including the Texas-based ti-in Network Inc. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1989.)

According to the “1990 U.S. Industrial Outlook,” published by the Commerce Department, demand for transponders--the transmitters carried by satellites--is rising faster than new satellites can be launched.

Even when new satellites are launched, the document states, “total transponder expenses will rise substantially because of higher launch and insurance costs.”

Kentucky, for example, spent $840,000 last year to broadcast 10 hours of programming a week. And that cost is likely to rise as the state takes on new educational services, Mr. Press said.

The Commerce report also projects that there will be “a strong growth” in educational programming broadcast via satellite in the coming year.

The impending shortage, argued Mr. Ward, is “going to put the education community into competition with commercial ventures.”

“It would be nice for education not to have to compete with horse-racing or the Playboy Channel,” he said.

Alternatives Weighed

But Linda G. Roberts, who directed a recently released study of distance-learning technologies for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, argued that new technologies still under development may alleviate the anticipated shortage before it begins.

Devices that would permit a single transponder to carry many signals are among a host of innovations now in the developmental stages that experts say could alleviate the imbalance between supply and demand.

The OTA study, “Linking for Learning: A New Course for Education,” demonstrates, Ms. Roberts said, that while satellite-delivered instruction is a rapidly growing field, only 7 percent of school districts nationwide rely on the technology as an adjunct to classroom teaching.

“We have many different technology options available,” she said. “There is no one best system to link for learning in this country.”

While states like Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas have invested heavily in satellite systems, “in other states, the investments are in slightly different technologies,” she said.

National resources might be better spent on a broad spectrum of communications technologies, including satellites, she said, in part because inherent technical and regulatory restrictions prevent satellite technology from being as “interactive” as alternative technologies.

“Satellite delivery works best for large numbers of people widely dispersed,” Ms. Roberts explained.

Meanwhile, new sources of transponder time may become available to educators.

The Public Broadcasting Service, for example, plans to increase the number of transponders it uses--and to improve services targeted at8schools--when it begins broadcasting on a new satellite in 1993, said Howard Miller, the network’s senior vice president for broadcast operations, engineering, and computer services.

While capacity may suffer temporarily when the existing satellite goes out of service next year, he said, the new satellite ground stations will include technical advancements that will enable students as well as teachers to broadcast voice transmissions.

Related Developments

The talk of orbiting a satellite dedicated to education is being played out against a backdrop of national developments that also includes the following:

The Education Department has requested no money in its fiscal 1991 budget to continue the Star Schools demonstration-grants program because, the department says, “use of large-scale telecommunications partnerships for elementary and secondary school instruction has been amply demonstrated.”

The Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, a wholesale power supplier serving consumers in rural areas of the state, last month announced a $500,000 program to supply each of the state’s 264 school districts with satellite receiving dishes and related hardware by next fall.

A legislative advisory panel in Texas is debating whether that state should launch a satellite of its own as part of efforts to resolve nagging problems of educational equity.

Steve Payne, a spokesman for state Senator J.E. Brown, who is chairing the panel, said a report from the committee is expected to be presented during a special legislative session on education issues scheduled for later this month.

Patsy O. Tinsley, a consultant who founded the ti-in Network in 1984, is completing a market analysis of distance learning for a private company said to be interested in the possibility of launching a private venture similar to Mr. Wilkinson’s.

Ms. Tinsley, who made a similar, though preliminary, study for Kentucky Educational Television that Mr. Wilkinson has used to support his proposal, said last week that the idea of a satellite dedicated to educational use, whether privately or government funded, is “not a wild idea, it’s going to be done.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 1990 edition of Education Week as Proposals To Launch Educational Satellite Are Gaining Support