Use It or Lose It: What To Do with Your Wireless Spectrum
Your unused wireless spectrum is in jeopardy of being repossessed next spring. Leasing it is your best option.
- By Wendy Chretien
What if you could turn your district's licensed wireless spectrum into a broadband network that benefits not only your students, but also the surrounding community?
This is not some fantasy. The Educational Broadband Service (EBS), formerly known as the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), is a licensed wireless service in the 2.5-GHz frequency range that was originally intended for over-the-air broadcasting of instructional television programs. Each EBS licensee is assigned a specific geographic service area, typically up to a 35-mile radius. Many school districts were granted ITFS licenses years ago, and many have never used them.
The Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) recent revamping of the spectrum from ITFS to EBS now makes it possible for licensees to use various fixed, portable, and mobile services related to education and instruction. These services can include providing students with high-speed wireless Internet access. However, since spectrum is a limited commodity, the FCC is working to ensure that licensed stations are actually in use--so if you have an idle ITFS/EBS license, get in gear. EBS licensees must demonstrate "significant use" of licensed spectrum by May 2011 or the FCC will reclaim it for other purposes.
Do You Even Have a License?
The first step to take is an elementary one: Determine whether your district holds an EBS license. One way to find out is to check with folks who are likely to know, such as your facilities or transportation department. Either one may track FCC licenses for other district-owned radio and wireless systems, and may do so for the ITFS/EBS license as well.
If these sources don't pan out, you can conduct a search of the FCC license database at wireless.fcc.gov/uls. Click on "License Search" in the left-hand navigation bar, then "Advanced License Search." Keep the advanced search as wide as possible by following these three steps:
- Under "Call Sign & Radio Services," ignore the "Call Sign" and "Service Group" parameters and instead select the button for "Match only the following radio service(s)." Then choose "ED" from the scrollable list.
- Under "Licensee," enter only your city and state. Be aware the results will show the mailing addresses of licensees, which may not correspond to usage locations.
Don't select any other search criteria; just these two should be enough to find any EBS license holders in your area regardless of their current status. In fact, you can even search only by state to ensure you don't miss a part of your district. A search of the state of North Dakota turned up 46 EBS licenses held by more than 25 different entities, most of them school districts.
- Now click on "Search" and check your results. (Note: The "Geosearch" option will show licenses that cover a geographic area regardless of the owner's location. For a North Dakota search, for example, Geosearch came up with 68 licenses, some of which are held by entities in South Dakota and Minnesota. But since school districts are geographic by nature, this step shouldn't be necessary.)
The Leasing Option
Considering how little time is left before the May 2011 deadline, the only truly feasible option for turning your spectrum into broadband services is to lease it to a commercial carrier, which would then provide broadband wireless service (presuming the FCC's educational programming mandates are met). The EBS 2.5- GHz spectrum is in the same frequency band as BRS (Broadband Radio Service), the FCC's name for commercial broadband wireless service. Several carriers have spent huge sums acquiring BRS licenses all over the US, and at the same time have been leasing EBS licenses from educational institutions.
You can tell in the spectrum search if your district has entered into a lease agreement--there will be an "L" in a box after the call sign. Clicking on the call sign will provide details about that license, with several tabs across the top of a table, including a tab for leases if one is in place. Sometimes if a lease is in process but not completed, the contact name listed will be for the firm trying to acquire the lease.
According to notifications filed with the FCC over the past two years, about 85 percent of all educational licensees were not operating when the transition to EBS was completed, but many have leases with commercial licensees to provide broadband service in their areas. Lubbock Independent School District (TX), for example, works with Clearwire. But regional operators, such as central Minnesota's Wisper High Speed Internet, and Xanadoo, which services cities in Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois, also lease EBS licenses. Some of these providers are still seeking unused licenses to lease.
One caveat, though. If poor cell service exists in your area, providers may not have a keen interest in offering services there. This is partly because this wireless technology requires towers for the broadcast sites, and if suitable towers aren't already in place a steep initial investment will be required, on top of all the time needed to obtain permits and actually build the towers. Also, keep in mind that the 2.5- GHz wireless signals from the EBS spectrum do not penetrate into buildings as well as standard cell phone service does, so students and staff members in your community should probably not expect good coverage in basements or inside rooms.
There's quite a lot of variation in the cost of the broadband services offered. Rates start around $25 per month and top out at about $100 per month. Xanadoo offers a program similar to prepaid long-distance cards, except that the subscriber must first buy a starter kit for about $50 and can then buy prepaid cards for seven to 90 days, with rates that work out to about $1 to $2 per day for 512 Kbps (not blazing speed, but still preferable to dial-up). If you're hoping to make broadband more affordable to students, you may want to discuss potential discounted rates with the provider. Worth noting, the FCC is considering subsidies for broadband service similar to the Universal Service Fund, which for years helped keep the cost of rural telephone service within reason.
In the Lubbock area, both Clearwire and Xanadoo have leased EBS licenses--Clearwire from the local school district, Xanadoo from the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock. Both providers advertise high-speed wireless Internet services based on WiMax technology, one of the new "4G" technologies that are more like a cellular service and cover a larger area than WiFi. In both instances, the carrier takes care of all the paperwork with the FCC, including the transition to the new channel plan. But the real incentive is the ongoing payments for use of the license. In Lubbock ISD's case, it is the district's television station that holds the license and is paid a variable percentage of Clearwire's revenues in that coverage area.
The Catholic Diocese of Lubbock has leased out its spectrum for the last four years to Xanadoo, for $500 per month plus free connectivity for 20 sites within the diocese. The diocese is currently renegotiating its lease with Xanadoo and hopes to change to a percentage of revenues as well. Some districts receive both an upfront payment and ongoing monthly amounts. For example, Avon Community Unit School District 176 (IL) received an initial payment of $15,000 and continues to get $1,200 a month from Utopian Wireless. Another Illinois district, Oblong Community Unit School District 4, gets $200 a month from Xanadoo.
Some broadband wireless carriers, including Xanadoo and Utopian, were awarded federal grants this year to expand or start offering high-speed wireless Internet service in many areas across the country. So if the provider that leases your license will be offering service for the first time in your area, you may be able to negotiate a better deal. And even if that provider didn't receive a grant for your particular location, the grants it did get could free up other funds to help build out a system in your community.
If you find your EBS license is both valid and unused, you may want to talk to one of the broadband providers about leasing your spectrum. Or if you already have a lease but your provider isn't yet offering broadband services, consider forcing the issue, because your license may be in jeopardy. In either case, don't wait--the FCC's clock is ticking.
This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of THE Journal.