Airwaves that are now licensed to schools for educational television could become a new pathway for high-speed Internet and wireless access to students, according to a proposal under review by the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC also may allow K-12 schools and universities, many of which are experiencing budget cuts, to sell those much-sought-after “spectrum” rights to high-tech businesses and other companies.
The proposed changes are part of the agency’s big-picture plan to streamline and modernize rules on the use and management of the nation’s increasingly crowded airwaves, as well as to promote competition and innovation in new wireless technologies. FCC officials estimate it would take at least a year, and opportunities for public comment, for the agency to decide on the proposed changes.
“The opportunity is monumental. ... [T]he time has come to chip off the regulatory barnacles encumbering [these airwaves],” FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said in a statement this month.
Not everyone agrees, however.
While changes are needed, allowing schools and other nonprofits to sell the rights to their portions of the airwaves is a bad idea, argues FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps.
“Such an outcome would threaten this important educational tool,” he said. “If [these parts of the airwaves] become just another commercial service, we will have lost the last place on the spectrum reserved specifically for education.”
There are 1,275 schools, universities, churches and other nonprofit groups that hold 2,400 spectrum licenses, and which serve millions of students on thousands of channels in more than 70,000 locations.
The South Carolina Educational Television Commission, for example, serves nearly 800 public schools and more than 400,000 students, mostly in rural areas. The Catholic Television Network serves more than 500,000 students and 4 million households nationwide, according to the FCC.
At issue is 190 megahertz of the spectrum in the midst of prime “real estate” desired by wireless and broadcast providers—an area of the airwaves that is often underused by schools and universities, the FCC and some technology-industry officials point out.
Currently, the spectrum space used for educational and cultural programming is about equal to that devoted to cellular phones.
Despite the high stakes involved, it seems that many officials in education don’t know about the proposed FCC changes.
In Missouri, there’s been talk among educators that the licenses are indeed valuable, but they haven’t tried to cash them in, said Joel D. Denney, the associate executive director for education advancement for the Missouri School Boards Association.
“They say, ‘Here’s something we’ve got and don’t use and could reap money for,’ but there’s always the hesitancy to give something up that may have value down the road,” he said.
Other proposed changes are also being weighed. They include modifying burdensome paperwork requirements that hamper wireless services and creating a flexible broadcast “band” that protects traditional television broadcasting, while accommodating newer technologies such as wireless fidelity.
The changes wouldn’t decrease the amount of educational programming for schools, but would increase their ability to use technology, argued Patrick Gossman, the chairman of the National Instructional Television Fixed Services Association. His Detroit-based group is part of a coalition of educational and commercial users that asked the FCC in October to update the rules.
For example, he said, instead of having students use laptops in their science classrooms, they would be able to take those computers or hand-held personal digital assistants, such as Palm Pilots, outdoors to conduct biology or other science experiments.
“We’re pushing for anywhere, anytime learning,” Mr. Gossman said. “The technology is there, but we just can’t do it under the current regulations.”