Schools and Phone Companies Face Off Over Wireless Spectrum


Consumers are hungry for data. To give it to them, mobile carriers say they need access to more of the wireless spectrum that carries cellular data, broadcast programming, and all other wireless signals.

Carriers complain that the parts of the spectrum reserved for smartphone use are increasingly crowded, at least in urban areas. To keep up with the growing demand for mobile video and other smartphone applications, and deliver the faster speeds promised by 5G, carriers want access to more of the spectrum.

Last week the Federal Communications Commission published a plan to auction off unused wireless spectrum originally set aside for schools in the 1960s. Only about half of this chunk of spectrum, now known as the "Educational Broadband Service," has been licensed to schools or educational organizations. Education groups and the wireless industry have been asking the FCC to license the rest for years. Under the new plan, schools and educational organizations that already have EBS licenses will be able to keep them or sell them to commercial carriers. Tribal Nations will get a chance to apply for the unassigned licenses; the remaining licenses will be auctioned off.

"Too much of this spectrum, which is prime spectrum for next generation mobile operations, including 5G, has lain fallow for more than 20 years," the FCC proposal says. "We are replacing an outdated regulatory regime, developed in the days when educational TV was the only use envisioned for this spectrum."

That’s not the plan education groups and broadband access advocates wanted. An earlier version of the proposal released last year would have allowed not only Tribal Nations but also schools and educational groups to apply for licenses ahead of the auction.

Critics of the new proposal say the FCC's plan will hand more control over public airwaves to commercial interests at the expense of communities and educational organizations. John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), says the FCC plan would be "disastrous for online learning, 5G deployment, and rural consumers."

The FCC did not respond to a request for comment. The wireless industry group CTIA declined to comment.

The problem, as Windhausen sees it, is that the spectrum is likely to get snapped up by major carriers with little incentive to offer broadband in rural areas that still lack 4G. Spending money to build cell towers that serve small populations might not make good business sense to companies, but schools or other community groups might be able to make the economics work. "Schools don't have to turn a profit," Windhausen says. "They don't pay taxes. They can seek grants from state and federal governments."

Allowing schools, libraries, or other community groups to apply for spectrum before the auction would enable communities to create their own broadband services in rural areas that are underserved by major carriers. Indeed, a few EBS license holders in places like Albemarle County, Virginia; Michigan's Upper Peninsula; and California's Central Valley are already offering their own broadband networks.

It's possible that commercial providers simply wouldn't bid on spectrum in rural areas where they are unlikely to offer service. But Windhausen worries big carriers will buy up spectrum simply to keep others out, and be willing to pay any fines for not using the spectrum. Moreover, some schools may be legally barred from participating in an auction for spectrum.

Giving EBS spectrum to schools has other potential benefits. The EBS spectrum was originally known as Instructional Television Fixed Service. It wasn't widely used, so the FCC allowed schools to lease their spectrum to commercial television providers. Then, in 2004, the FCC changed the rules to allow the spectrum to be used not just for television but for wireless data services. License holders ended up leasing most of the spectrum to commercial providers, mainly Sprint, which pay schools and other license holders for the privilege.

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The nonprofit organization North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation (NACEPF) leases spectrum to companies including Sprint. It uses the proceeds of those leases to help fund its various initiatives. But as part of the deal, NACEPF's subsidiary Mobile Beacon gets to use Sprint's network to offer its own wireless internet service to schools, libraries, and other community organizations. Mobile Beacon offers unlimited 4G internet through wireless hotspot devices for $10 a month. Mobile Citizen, part of another nonprofit called Voqal that leases EBS spectrum to Sprint, offers a similar service.

"There's a myth that EBS has been unused," says Mobile Beacon executive director Katherine Messier. "But there's been tremendous use where it has been licensed. Just because the FCC hasn't made it available doesn't mean organizations like us haven't been connecting thousands of rural and low-income Americans."

The catch is that Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen can only provide service in places where mobile carriers already offer service, because they rely on those networks. When schools began leasing spectrum in 2004, however, few understood how valuable the spectrum might become for 5G. So many leased their spectrum under 30-year contracts that didn’t give them the option to build their own networks.

SHLB hoped that schools would get a chance to make more informed decisions about leasing EBS spectrum this time around. But if the FCC passes its plan in its current form next month, they won't get any choice at all.

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