The Federal Communications Commission decided yesterday not to allow educational institutions to sell their spectrum licenses, but the agency will allow them to continue leasing the valuable airwaves for commercial use, and it will move users around to reduce interference.
The decision will benefit Nextel Communications Inc., which holds neighboring spectrum, and wireless start-ups eager to lease space for phone calls and high-speed Internet traffic.
In adopting the new rules, the FCC said it was promoting more efficient, shared use of a valuable public resource for both commercial and public-interest purposes.
"I think this is a victory for schools and university and church groups, and for technology, too," said Commissioner Michael J. Copps, who opposed sale of the airwaves. "This is a part of the spectrum that is specifically preserved for educational use."
Currently, the airwaves are used primarily by about 1,200 educational institutions, from the University of Colorado and Stanford University to Catholic schools, to carry Internet traffic or broadcast videos for long-distance teaching.
"While a sale would have been privately beneficial" to some of those institutions, it would not be in the public interest to turn over the airwaves to companies, said Edwin N. Lavergne, an attorney for the Catholic Television Network, which broadcasts educational programming using the channels.
Under the new rules, educational groups will continue to make money by leasing some of their unused airwave capacity to companies. Relocating users of the spectrum will allow more traffic without causing interference between the users.
The vote of the five-member commission was unanimous. The possibility of selling the airwaves had come up as part of a broader FCC staff proposal to reorganize the airwaves.
At a public meeting yesterday, the commissioners said restructuring the educators' airwaves could encourage entrepreneurs to use the spectrum to transmit new high-speed wireless services.
One such company is Clearwire Inc., owned by cellular pioneer Craig O. McCaw. Clearwire announced this month plans to offer wireless Internet service at very high speeds. The company argued against the sale of the airwaves, contending it would have been outbid by much wealthier cellular phone companies that would have snapped up the spectrum rights and prevented new, competitive Internet services from going to market.
The new rules also are a victory for Reston-based Nextel, which bought much of the frequencies near the educational institutions' through the bankruptcy proceedings of WorldCom Inc. (now MCI Inc.) and Nucentrix Broadband Network Inc. Nextel said it will be able to carry larger volumes of Internet traffic over its network once the FCC reallocates the educational spectrum.
"I think the commission took a number of good steps to make the spectrum more useful," said Lawrence R. Krevor, vice president of government affairs for Nextel.
Yesterday's proceeding was separate from the dispute over Nextel's proposal to exchange some spectrum to help minimize cellular interference with public safety communications systems. That matter is still pending.