The Federal Communications Commission last week decided to leave a valuable chunk of the nation’s airwaves in the hands of school districts and other educational agencies that currently hold licenses for it.
In an unexpected move, the commission’s five members on June 10 unanimously approved an order that went contrary to a proposal backed by some telecommunications and computer companies that would have placed a highly desired portion of the radio spectrum’s bandwidth on the auction block.
Called the Instructional Television Fixed Service, the portion of the airwaves that educational licensees have controlled for decades is subdivided into 20 channels. It is reserved for providing educational instruction and cultural and professional development in schools and other nonprofit institutions.
About 1,250 educational institutions hold ITFS licenses, according to Patrick Gossman, the chairman of the National ITFS Association. He said the largest group of licensees serve K-12 students.
But since 1983, educational license-holders have been allowed to lease their excess capacity on the 2.5 to 2.7 gigahertz band to telecommunications companies. The option has proved lucrative to the educational groups.
That bandwidth is viewed by the communications industry as well suited for high- speed wireless Internet services, which are now being developed using other parts of the spectrum. An FCC staff proposal had recommended taking part of the spectrum away from ITFS and also allowing educational license-holders to sell their spectrum to companies for the first time. Critics argued that states might use such sales to balance their education budgets in the short term, while permanently placing the bandwidth out of the control of educational institutions.
Some educators hope to use that electromagnetic real estate eventually to give students and teachers more robust wireless access to the Web, at greater ranges than is possible using wireless technologies now available to them. (“School-Owned Airwave Rights Studied by FCC,” March 26, 2003.)
After the vote, some educational license-holders expressed relief that their current services were untouched.
“The decision by the FCC allows us to continue with the educational programs we’re currently providing,” said Bruce Braciszewski, the senior director for instructional television services in the San Diego County Office of Education, which serves numerous districts.
The office, one of seven educational license-holders in the county, uses the spectrum to beam programming for San Diego’s educational access channel to a half-dozen cable companies that distribute it to households. Another use is providing instructional television to 600 schools throughout the county.
The decision “also allows us to continue our excess lease agreements with Nextel [Communications Inc.],” Mr. Braciszewski said, noting that the deal has earned the office nearly $2 million over the past five years.
In other regions, however, the ITFS spectrum is not used very much, which has fueled the push for offering it on the free market.
FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, a proponent of free-market economic theory, warned at the commission’s meeting in Washington that educational groups have a responsibility to make good use of the airwaves they control.
“Use it, or get out of the way for someone who will,” he said. “The country can’t afford to have such huge amounts of spectrum ... to go unutilized.”
Mr. Gossman said educational institutions recognize their obligation to use the spectrum fully, but said they were often hampered by FCC rules.
“We had our hands tied by the current regulations. We couldn’t really use it for these new things,” Mr. Gossman said.
The commission still must release detailed rules to implement its decision, probably within the next six months.
But Mr. Gossman believes the way may now be paved for other educational institutions to obtain licenses. “In rural areas, there may be spectrum available,” he said. “There has not been open window for applications for ITFS licenses for about 10 years.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Vote by FCC Lets Schools Keep Key Portion of Airwaves