Equity & Diversity

Can Tapping Into Unused Broadband Spectrum Boost K-12 Connectivity?

By Michelle Goldchain — February 26, 2019 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

School advocates hope that a proposal under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission to tap into a largely unused portion of broadband spectrum will boost students’ access to high-speed internet connectivity.

The FCC is considering an array of ideas that it says will overhaul and “rationalize” outdated regulations for how the spectrum is governed, so that it could be put to better use and promote next-generation wireless broadband use. The ideas floated by the commission—in a notice put out for public comment last year—include changing how spectrum licenses are assigned by the FCC, and allowing auctions of unused spectrum.

The proposal also seeks to free up the Educational Broadband Service’s 2.5 GHz frequency band for commercial broadband services in rural areas. This frequency band, the largest band of contiguous spectrum below 3 GHz, is meant to serve primarily an educational purpose.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel argues that the agency’s proposal—put forward in a notice of proposed rulemaking—has the potential to help alleviate the “homework gap,” or the inability of many students to access reliable web connections away from school. But skeptics, including some commercial internet providers, predict that some changes to the policy could undermine businesses that are already providing broadband to educational institutions.

“In too many cases, this little-known public resource is underutilized or has been leased out to commercial interests unrelated to education,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “So it has not fully lived up to what the FCC imagined when it set aside this slice of airwaves for educational opportunity.”

In its notice of proposed rulemaking, the FCC said it will consider whether to create open local priority “filing windows” so that existing educational entities could get unused spectrum; and it will weigh the merits of using an incentive auction.

The incentive auction that Rosenworcel, a Democrat, supports would theoretically allow schools bring their EBS licenses to the FCC, be paid what they’re worth, and have their licenses repackaged and resold to wireless companies. The resulting revenue, which would theoretically amount to more than a billion dollars nationwide, could be put towards expanding internet access throughout the country, especially in rural areas where internet access is often sparse, according to backers of the plan.

The original purpose of the EBS spectrum, originally known as the Instructional Television Fixed Service, or ITFS, was to assist in delivering instructional television to schools and other educational institutions.

It was first authorized in 1963 and was largely unused before the FCC permitted schools and school districts to lease excess capacity for commercial use. In 1995, the FCC suspended the processing of EBS applications and the agency has only opened filing windows for applications twice since then. In 2004, the FCC updated and renamed the ITFS, reimagining it for educational broadband as opposed to instructional television.

With the new proposal, which Rosenworcel has described as “long overdue,” the hope is to allow for more transparency and flexibility in the framework for licensing the EBS spectrum.

Katherine Messier, the director of development at North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation, opposes the incentive auction. In a discussion at the National Press Club last month, she said that approximately 90 percent of EBS spectrum licenses are currently leased to commercial entities.

Messier said that it is a misconception to think that just because licensees are leasing their spectrum that it’s not being put to use.

“The public-private partnerships that come out of leasing your spectrum has wins for the commercial side,” she said.

Messier is managing director of Mobile Beacon, a nonprofit that provides broadband to educational organizations across the nation. The organization currently serves over 920 schools, 970 libraries, and over 6,600 nonprofit organization, Messier told Education Week. She said that Mobile Beacon’s internet service, capped at $10 per month, is more affordable than typical commercial rates.

Peter Pitsch, a former associate general counsel at Intel who is now a consultant for the company, spoke in support of the FCC’s proposal at the event last month.

“The flexibility that’s being proposed and the auction that’s being proposed would both increase the value of the current licenses, which would be good for the current holders of EBS licenses.”

Revenues from the auction could support schools, he added.

Proposed changes to the EBS spectrum would need to be approved by a majority on the five-member, Republican-led FCC.

One of the Republicans on the commission, Michael O’Rielly, said he supported the FCC’s review of the spectrum policy, which he said was clearly not being used for its intended purpose.

“What started out in the early 1980s as an opportunity for educational institutions to provide instructional materials, while leasing some unused spectrum, has morphed over time into something quite different -- a broadband play for commercial wireless providers,” O’Rielly said in a statement last year.

Of roughly 2,190 active EBS licenses today, it is estimated that 2,000 of those licenses are leased largely to commercial entities, O’Rielly pointed out. “While this is not necessarily problematic, we should stop pretending that this issue is about interactive school television channels or other educational purposes,” he said.

O’Rielly also said he’s wary of the FCC repeating past mistakes through its creation of new “local priority filing windows” to allow organizations to apply to use the spectrum. The problem occurs if the FCC issues new licenses “for free or on the cheap, which then -- consistent with EBS tradition -- could be immediately leased or flipped to commercial providers,” he said.

Currently, the EBS spectrum is not only largely unused, but also unknown. Most educators in school districts are unaware of the option unless they were handed a license by the FCC before the mid-1990s when the agency stopped doing so. There have been efforts since then, though, to expand its use across the nation in ways that will benefit K-12 schools.

In September 2008, 11 education groups, including the National Association of State Boards of Education, International Society for Technology in Education, and the Consortium for School Networking, filed documents petitioning the FCC to give educators access to portions of the EBS spectrum that were not utilized.

If the incentive auction proposal does not get approved in the end, Rosenworcel hopes that the FCC will continue to try to close the homework gap through the FCC’s E-rate program, though she said there are limits to that program’s ability to correct the problem.

Having reliable internet connectivity at school “is not sufficient,” she said during the National Press Club discussion.

“You’re going to need some sort of home access to have a fair shot at success when it comes to your education.”

See also:

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.