A competition for new Canadian radio frequencies that requires commercial services to include a learning component seems to be putting out only a faint signal to the university sector.
For years, universities have seen the potential for using radio frequencies to fulfil some of their needs. Airwaves can transmit distance education programmes and carry video conferencing and telemedicine. The high price of transmission equipment, however, has forced many to stay away from the technology and opt for more restrictive phone lines or cable.
Now a government department, deluged with applications for multipoint communication systems (MCS), says learning institutions will finally be able to afford the wireless technology by "riding on the coat-tails of an affluent commercial partner".
Industry Canada recently announced it is imposing an additional clause on all those applicants vying to use MCS, a technology where one main radio station can communicate one-way or two-way with many locations, transmitting voice, data and multimedia.
Only one operator will be licensed in each geographical area, so in big cities, at least, competition is intense. To compete, applicants must now demonstrate a learning component in their project submissions.
Although the government says the clause will help non-profit educational institutions, higher education's role is still somewhat sketchy.
"It's not for education but for learning," Athabasca University's David Hrenewich said. He is among those coordinating commercial applicants with the needs of the "learning community", and his words reflect the vagueness of the plan's criteria.
Applicants are asked to show how, by using the 2,500 MHz system, their project will "foster or improve the acquisition of skills, knowledge and understanding". Learning authorities have been set up in 13 regions of Canada to help identify needs of communities served by MCS.
Companies have until October to submit expressions of interest and to show a "learning plan".
If a university does eventually get to be a partner with a new licence holder, the system will be capable of answering a host of needs. The technology can broadcast a mass of data to several buildings at once, transmit a narrower amount of information for longer distances or, by using a series of microwave links, transmit information for long distances.
In theory it could reach all parts of Canada. However, education can only hitch a ride as far as business is prepared to go, and it is not certain that commercial operators will be interested in the more far-flung reaches of the country.