A recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission reflected the accuracy of the observation of Tip O'Neill, the late speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, that all politics are local. The FCC decision also reflected the corollary that colleges and universities and other educators can be an extremely formidable lobbying force in Washington, even in the face of a competing government and industry-backed outcome, when mobilized and coordinated around a unified position.
The issue at the FCC involved a proceeding to overhaul the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) band plan and technical rules and determine whether educational institutions, public TV stations, churches, and nonprofit entities would continue to exclusively control the ITFS spectrum. This is the only portion of the radio spectrum that for 40 years has been used by educators for the delivery of instructional programming. The FCC was looking into opening the band for commercial use because the ever-increasing and competing demands for spectrum have outpaced these finite resources.
INSTRUCTIONAL TELEVISION FIXED SERVICE
The large portion of spectrum allocated for ITFS has such favorable technical characteristics--and is therefore so valuable--that it has been dubbed "beach-front property." Since the early 1960s, it has been licensed only to educators. For the past two decades, however, the FCC has encouraged ITFS licensees to lease excess ITFS channel capacity for commercial purposes to further the policy goals of encouraging full use of the spectrum and promoting competitive commercial communications systems, while at the same time providing support for educational services.
Today, there are more than 1,275 ITFS licensees that serve millions of students. Licensees include state universities, community and technical colleges, private colleges, public elementary and secondary school districts, private and parochial schools, government agencies, public broadcast stations, hospitals, and private nonprofit educational entities such as the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church ITFS licensees alone serve more than 600,000 students and four million households throughout the United States. ITFS systems distribute educational, instructional, inspirational, and other services to schools as well as community centers, hospitals, nursing homes, parishes, and residences.
ITFS channels today are primarily used to deliver video programming. However, ITFS licensees are beginning to use their spectrum to deploy high-speed wireless broadband networks and data services to education and community institutions, homes, and small businesses. To be successful, however, a major restructuring of the ITFS band and revised technical rules are required to support new two-way wireless broadband technologies.
THE FIGHT AT THE FCC
The educational community participated in the development of these rule changes and has vigorously supported them. But somehow during the course of the proceedings to consider these changes, the FCC asked whether commercial entities should be permitted to buy ITFS spectrum at an auction, the FCC's preferred mechanism for allocating scarce spectrum and squeezing out critically needed revenue for the federal government.
The commercial wireless companies' interest in the ITFS spectrum was piqued after legendary cellular telephone entrepreneur Craig McCaw began last year to quietly lease spectrum rights and purchase commercial spectrum in the same band. The commercial outfits argued that educators are underutilizing this scarce public resource and that they could better exploit it to provide new forms of commercial wireless services if they could buy rather than lease excess channel capacity. Many educators, they said, don't even use their ITFS spectrum, sometimes leasing up to 95 percent of available capacity to commercial partners.
This argument found receptive ears at the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, notwithstanding educators' rebuttals that they have been providing millions of students with a wealth of instructional services, and their plans to provide interactive wireless educational services once the FCC overhauls the ITFS band plan and technical rules. …