IF YOU WERE delighted to learn that the D.C. public schools are about to enter the world of satellite television instruction in the classroom, you will want to know about a proceeding now pending before the Federal Communications Commission. It arises because some high-frequency television channels have been reserved, for the last 20 years, for broadcasting educational or instructional programs, and the right to use these highly desirable frequencies is now being challenged by commercial broadcasters.
The channels at issue are not those used for public broadcasting on which programs are available at no cost to anyone who owns a television set. Channels like the one that will be used in Washington schools are specially reserved for instructional material. Programs for both students and teachers are broadcast to schoolrooms; college-level courses are made available to homes in rural areas; teaching hospitals broadcast entire operations and demonstrate medical procedures to health professionals throughout the area. Users rent a small black box that sits on top of the TV set and enables them to receive a program and, in some cases, to provide feedback, answer questions, take examinations and communicate in other ways with the sender. In this area, licenses for these channels are held by the University of Maryland, George Mason University and George Washington University. The Archdiocese of Washington has applied for a license to beam instruction to the parochial schools and Catholic hospitals in the area, and the public schools will soon be plugged into a channel broadcasting from Williamsburg, Va.
The problem is that not all educators across the country have been as quick to use the available channels as those in this area, and unused channels are a valuable commodity. Business systems would like to use them. So would the people who sell movies to homes and hotels and motels. They, and others have asked the FCC to free some of the instructional channels for commercial use, and the commission is considering a number of options. It could give away all unused channels; it could keep a certain percentage for future use by educators and license the rest to others; it is even considering conducting a lottery for the licenses.
This threat to their exclusive rights has shaken up educators, who have begun to apply for available licenses at an accelerated rate. Money for broadcasting is always a problem, but those with any sense of the great potential of this medium in the classroom are acting now. Interested citizens await the FCC decision, which is due next month.