The FCC is considering updating the licensing of the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band to allow for more flexible use. The 2.5 GHz band (2496-2690 MHz), considered mid-band spectrum for 5G, constitutes the single largest band of contiguous spectrum below 3 gigahertz.
“We need to get this valuable spectrum into the hands of those who will provide service, including 5G, to Americans across the country, particularly in rural areas where the spectrum is currently mostly unused,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a prepared statement.
EBS spectrum in this band, however, currently lies fallow across one-half of the United States, primarily in rural areas, because of outdated regulations, according to the commission. It has gone through several regulatory evolutions.
In 1963, Instructional Television Fixed Service, the precursor to EBS, was established to allow schools to share video content, but the service never took off. The “tortured history” of the ITFS is an example of the FCC’s failed “command-and-control” spectrum management methods, according to FCC Comm. Brendan Carr.
“Two decades later, nearly half of all states had zero ITFS licensees, even though we were essentially giving away licenses for free,” Carr said. “Many educational institutions simply didn’t have the resources or technical knowledge to use the spectrum.”
In 2006, the FCC allowed educational institutions to share instructional materials while leasing unused spectrum, which led to the domination of the band by commercial wireless providers, according to FCC Comm. Michael O’Rielly.
“In fact, of the approximate 2,190 active EBS licenses today, it is estimated that 2,000 of those licenses are leased in most part to commercial providers,” O’Rielly said. “While this is not necessarily problematic, we should stop pretending that this issue is about interactive school television channels or other educational purposes.”
Spectrum at 2.5 GHz has changed hands several times among the commercial carriers. Sprint owns more than 160 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum in the top 100 U.S. markets, some of which it got when it purchased Clearwire in 2013. Clearwire purchased 2.5 GHz spectrum from AT&T in 2007, which had to be divested as a result of the AT&T/BellSouth merger. Back when WiMAX was the rising technology.
Before making the spectrum open for commercial use through an auction, the FCC proposes to allow applicants physically located in a license area to access the spectrum, including existing EBS licensees, Tribal Nations in rural areas and other EBS-eligible entities.
O’Rielly took issue with the idea of creating new local priority filing windows for preferred entities.
“It is one thing to allow long-standing incumbents greater flexibility to put their spectrum to better use or participate in the secondary market,” he said. “It is quite another to issue new licenses for free or on the cheap, which then – consistent with EBS tradition – could be immediately leased or flipped to commercial providers. Why would we enrich such middlemen? Why would we continue the EBS charade and would doing so even be consistent with the law?”
FCC Comm. Jessica Rosenworcel said the spectrum should continue to be used for educational purposes, primarily providing students with internet access at school but also at home.
“What if we repurposed the Educational Broadband Service through an incentive auction?” she said. “What if we expanded the opportunities for spectrum use by auctioning not just licenses in inventory but through overlay rights? Then what if we took the revenue from this effort and used it to support new initiatives to bridge the Homework Gap—to ensure every child has the internet access they need for schoolwork?”