An ambitious plan to blanket the country with wireless Internet access has an unlikely beneficiary: public and private schools.
For nearly 20 years, five California State University campuses in the Los Angeles area have banded together to broadcast live courses over public airwaves that were long ago set aside by the federal government for distance learning.
It hasn't been simple. The spectrum isn't as good as commercial TV, and until the late 1990s it required bulky rooftop receivers that needed a clear line of sight to broadcast towers on Mt. Wilson or Modjeska Peak.
But technological advances have made the airwaves easier to use -- and much more lucrative to hold. For Cal State Los Angeles, Long Beach, Dominguez Hills, Fullerton and Pomona, as well as schools and religious institutions around the country, holding a license to the spectrum as the wireless industry expands has been like finding a winning lottery ticket in a dresser drawer.
"Our bandwidth . . . is gold," said Dr. Warren Ashley, director of the Center for Mediated Instruction and Distance Learning at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
A $14.5-billion consortium of big-name companies, including Sprint Nextel Corp., Clearwire Corp., Google Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc., wants to use the spectrum to deliver high-speed Internet access nationwide. During the last few years, Sprint and Clearwire have been cutting deals with educational institutions. They have about 1,400 long-term agreements with public and private school districts and with community colleges and universities to lease some of the airwaves for their proposed WiMax network.
The agreements funnel thousands and even millions of dollars annually to schools at a time of budget cutbacks and economic slowdown. In densely populated markets such as Southern California the spectrum is highly valuable. For example, the five Cal State campuses that operate the Calnet distance-learning consortium signed a joint 15-year deal with Sprint in 2006 worth $55.7 million to use about three-fourths of their airwaves.
"For a long time, the five campuses certainly didn't make any money off this. They were expending money to deliver classes. . . . Now we're making money and that's a good thing for California and for public education," said Patricia Cuocco, senior director for technology policy planning and advice in the CSU chancellor's office. "This is one of those times when just wanting to do some public good in delivering distance education really benefited us in the long run."
The monthly checks pay salaries for course developers and help the campuses continue to provide the distance-learning classes, now with digitized video often delivered over the Internet, Cuocco said. Sprint and Clearwire have helped update the distance-learning technology at many schools, allowing the same amount of programming to be transmitted over less of the spectrum, or moved off it completely to Internet streaming -- with the added bonus of freeing up more spectrum for leasing.
"They're delivering far more educational services, and it allows . . . the commercial deployment of broadband services, maximizes the efficiency of the spectrum, and it gives the educational institutions some revenue," said Gerry Salemme, Clearwire's executive vice president of strategy, policy and external affairs. "It really has been a win-win."
Federal officials have blessed the arrangements. Believing that the airwaves were underused and wanting to help develop more high-speed Internet access, the Federal Communications Commission categorized them as Educational Broadband Spectrum in 2004 and made it easier for schools to lease as much as 95% of their allotment for commercial use.
"We want to squeeze as much data onto this spectrum as we can and not see it lie fallow," FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, who supported the changes, said in an interview. "In some cases this may be a win-win: It's a win for commercial broadband competition and it's a win for the educational and religious institutions."
With big bucks potentially awaiting, about 140 educational institutions whose licenses expired years ago are clamoring for the FCC to renew them. The FCC is considering the requests, and also trying to figure out how to allocate unused educational airwaves across the country.
"It has the potential to generate a considerable amount of revenue," said Don MacCullough, executive director of the National Educational Broadband Spectrum Assn., which represents institutions with licenses for the airwaves.
Revenue wasn't the idea when the FCC allocated the airwaves to educational institutions in 1963 to encourage distance learning. MacCullough recalled climbing to the top of buildings in the Miami-Dade County school district trying to aim large antennas at the broadcasting tower.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials decided that their distance-learning initiatives would have greater reach with a traditional television station and they got a license instead for KLCS, the public TV station the district still operates, said Janalyn Glymph, the station's general manager.
"No one foresaw the future," she said, explaining why L.A. Unified didn't seek educational spectrum licenses. "You didn't anticipate being able to lease" the spectrum.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has several licenses, which it has used since the 1960s to beam programs to 110 Catholic schools in the area. Only one educational institution can hold each license, which covers a 35-mile radius.
Clearwire signed a lease in 2006 that includes upgrading the archdiocese's technology to replace the over-the-air broadcasts with Internet streaming, said Edwin N. Lavergne, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the archdiocese. Neither he nor Clearwire would say how much the archdiocese is paid.
"By leasing the spectrum, they're able to get a much more robust network that will be constructed by Clearwire than they could ever get trying to utilize the spectrum just on its own," Lavergne said.
Long Beach Unified School District officials believe that over-the-air broadcasting is more efficient than online streaming. The district has a daily TV schedule, and classrooms in all of its 96 schools can tune in to the programs, which include shows such as "Newscasts From the Past" and "Fun With Math," said Ray Sharp, who runs the Office of Multimedia Services.
Last year, Long Beach Unified signed a 15-year lease with Clearwire for $6.96 million for access to some of the district's educational airwaves, spokesman Chris Eftychiou said.
"It's very helpful," Sharp said of the money, which helps offset potential state budget cuts. "Just don't tell Arnold Schwarzenegger."