FCC Approves Educational Broadband Service Order

The FCC is moving forward with a plan to auction off spectrum from the Educational Broadband Service to commercial providers.

In an attempt to free up spectrum for 5G, the Federal Communications Commission voted on July 10 to approve an order to transform the 2.5 GHz band by making unassigned licenses from the Educational Broadband Service available for commercial use. For 50 years, the Educational Broadband Service has provided schools and districts with a dedicated band of spectrum to improve connectivity in rural areas.

However, much of the spectrum allocated to EBS has not been utilized by current licensees for over 20 years. This led to the FCC’s decision to eliminate “restrictions on the types of entities that can hold licenses as well as educational use requirements, while preserving incumbent licensees’ private contractual arrangements and provisions in existing leases.”

“This is the single largest contiguous swatch of mid-band spectrum below 3 GHz in the entire country, and, given its combination of coverage and capacity, it presents a big opportunity for 5G. But today, this valuable public resource is dramatically underused, especially west of the Mississippi River,” said FCC chairman Ajit Pai in his statement ahead of the FCC’s vote on the order.

After a tribal priority window, the remaining unassigned spectrum will be available for commercial use via competitive bidding. The order eliminates restrictions on the types of entities that can hold licenses in an effort to close the digital divide in rural areas.

In a July 3 letter to the FCC, school advocacy groups including the Consortium for School Networking and the SHLB Coalition asked the commission to consider a priority window for educational institutions. These groups argue that the “reasons in the draft order for adopting the tribal priority window to close the digital divide apply equally to these similarly situated rural communities” that utilize connectivity options from educational providers. But the FCC decided to only give tribal entities a priority window.

Voqal, a national collaboration of current EBS licensees, calls the FCC’s decision to dismantle EBS “a short-sighted move that wastes a valuable resource and forecloses a rare opportunity to quickly support rural educators and communities starved for broadband access.” The group claims that putting up an auction to license the remaining spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band will not end the digital divide in rural America.

“Today’s vote doubles down on the same auction-driven spectrum policies that have left rural America unserved and low-income students forced to do their homework on WiFi in McDonald’s parking lots,” said Voqal president John Schwartz. “Instead of updating EBS and expanding on the strong track record of licensees such as Voqal – which is proud of our record of serving schools and low-income communities – the Commission has voted to commercialize a vital public asset.”

In opposition to the order, the U.S. Department of Education has urged the FCC to maintain the current eligibility requirements for EBS and modernize the educational use requirement for licenses to improve how EBS licensees can deploy the spectrum to meet local education needs.

“Rather than remove the educational use requirement, the Commission should update the requirement to reflect effective, modern digital learning practices and shift the focus of what is considered an educational use from the amount of content delivered to who and how many people are being served. This includes a continued focus on bridging the digital divide and the homework gap and broadening the definition of educational programs to include those that take place outside of formal, accredited institutions, like workforce development or adult education programs,” said Jim Blew, ED’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development in a letter on June 7.

The full text of the FCC’s order can be found here.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

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