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FAU wireless deal could reap millions for university faculty and students

As financial shadows loom over Florida Atlantic University and cause course reductions, higher tuition and stalled research efforts, unused bandwidth from the 1980s peeks through with much-needed sunshine.

FAU's Board of Trustees revealed to the public in early September plans to lease the university's unused bandwidth space to the technology company Clearwire, reaping tens of millions of dollars to assist students and faculty.

“This is a long-term asset for this university. ... This is a big deal,” said Nancy Blosser, the Board of Trustees chair.

Some of the money will go toward fostering student success by adding supplemental instruction courses, increasing tutoring services and providing new student research opportunities.

“Students are at the heart of everything we do,” FAU President Frank Brogan said, referring to the bandwidth deal.

A five-year plan was presented to the board recently by FAU's provost John Pritchett, who described specific goals for the money.

Supplemental instruction courses, a new program that offers extra help with difficult classes, would increase to 40 per semester from the current 22. Tutoring services not offered by supplemental instruction would double. Grants also would be awarded to students to promote undergraduate research, while stipends would be allotted to faculty that oversee that research. “This gives us the opportunity to give rewards to the faculty, and opportunities to students,” Blosser said. .

The contract with Clearwire spans the next 10 years and is part of FAU's Strategic Academic Enhancement Initiative.

The pact is projected to bring in an estimated $53 million profit, and also allow the technology company an opportunity to lease the unused space for two additional 10-year terms. Over 30 years, the deal would generate $173 million, according to university estimates.

“It will be great to speak to students about something positive, instead of just the budget cuts,” said Abe Cohen, student body president.

FAU's financial downward spiral began after Gov. Charlie Crist made severe cuts to this year's educational budget because of an anemic housing market, failing economy and inaccurate predictions about the state's annual revenue. Course availability tightened after FAU was forced to eliminate 134 job positions. Some of those positions were vacant, however.

Tuition increased by 5 percent for the 2007-2008 school year, and another 6 percent for 2008-2009, while a 2. 6 percent fee was added to costs if paid by credit card.

A travel freeze also has been imposed on faculty, making it hard to continue research and present papers at conferences, which in the end hurts students, university officials have said. Some research facilities have been forced to close or seek alternate financing, including the Center for Urban Research and the Small Business Development Center.

Students are starting to feel the impact, as well, because of reduced course offerings.

“I feel like I'll be here forever,” said senior Jamie Nachman. “I have to contact my teachers to beg for an override … and I have to take a Saturday class from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,” she said.

FAU's ability to lease the space was made possible in the 1980s by the Federal Communications Commission when special licenses reserved a large amount of bandwidth for schools, but only required them to use a certain percentage for educational purposes.

Although FAU was not technologically equipped with the hardware to make the extra space commercially usable in the 1980s, devastating hurricanes in 2005 forced the school to build a new communication system that made using the additional bandwidth feasible.

“A new system would cost close to $25 million, so we decided to go with an underground copper-wire system that had been started in the previous decade,” said David Kian, the Board of Trustees' general counsel.

Once officials determined that the space could be leased out, the idea was brought to each board member, and most agreed that that the opportunity was a good one.

“We looked at the risk and the rewards, and this was the in the best interest of the university. We don’t have to spend money to maintain and keep the licenses, it’s a win-win deal,” said Scott Adams, the board's vice chair.

If the licenses are not used, FAU would lose them, anyway, so it was in the university's best interests to form a partnership, trustees said.

After reviewing bids from major companies such as Sprint and Netwave, the staff chose Clearwire, a technology firm responsible for the introduction of WiMax, a wireless system that will surpass the capabilities of WiFi and be, as Kian put it, “like a fire hose would be to a garden hose.”

FAU's choice of Clearwire gives the school the opportunity to develop its information technology teaching-learning infrastructure, one of the other main goals for the money. The school also will use the money to invest in research.

The deal has every department's attention as budgets cuts wear the school thin, but Brogan said he wants to make sure the money generated from the deal does not create a “feeding frenzy” among faculty and staff.

“I like out-of-the-box thinking, but this is one-time money. If we treat it like the lottery and spend it all, then we will have to play the lottery again,” Brogan said.




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