Let Local Educators Close the Broadband “Homework Gap”

By: Jane Lee, Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge

The FCC shouldn’t get in the way of communities working to close the digital divide for students.

The Federal Communications Commission proposes changing the rules for the Educational Broadband Service (EBS), the educational, non-commercial portion of the 2.5 GHz band. About 40 years ago, the FCC initially designated this band as Instructional Television Fixed Service, which later became EBS, a portion of the 2.5 GHz band that also includes Broadband Radio Service, which is the wireless and cellularized portion of the band.

Many EBS licensees (“licensees”) are using their spectrum to offer localized and affordable service to their communities. Northern Michigan University (NMU), located in the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan (“Peninsula”), sets an impressive example of a local licensee using the EBS band to close the homework gap. The school built what is called the “WiMAX” network, which is the largest self-deployed LTE network in the nation. Even President Obama touted the network as a model for wireless broadband deployment in rural areas, after his visit to NMU in 2011. By using this network, nearly 9,000 of NMU’s students are able to remotely access course content, conduct online research, and develop their career and technical skills.

“This isn’t just about faster internet or being able to find a friend on Facebook. It’s about connecting every corner of America to the digital age… It’s about every young person who no longer has to leave his hometown to seek new opportunity — because opportunity is right there at his or her fingertips.” — President Obama during NMU visit

Significantly, NMU provides internet throughout the Peninsula over an eight-GSA (Geographic Service Area) region to serve in places where commercial broadband is altogether unavailable. Even in areas where there is overlapping service with commercial carriers, NMU’s LTE is preferable for educational needs because of its cheaper price tag. Furthermore, the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians leases spectrum from this NMU network to provide broadband to educational institutions on and around the Bad River reservation. Similarly, Mural Net is providing broadband service in Supai, a 800-member Tribal village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon that can only be reached by helicopter, a 8-mile hike, or a horseback ride. As such, EBS licensees are providing what is often the only broadband service in communities where carriers refuse to build out.

As the FCC grapples with the question of how to modernize the rules of this band, the implementation of priority filing windows, as proposed by the FCC, should be the first and foremost guarantee for such incumbent licensees that are successfully bridging the digital divide in their communities. The FCC is proposing to auction off the band because it argues that most licensees aren’t doing anything with it directly. However, licensees that have been able to provide service for their communities where commercial providers have neglected or failed to provide service should be first given a chance to keep their seats at the table via priority filing windows, and then the FCC could consider resorting to cashing out the rest of the band through an auction. That way, the incumbent licensees would be given a meaningful choice of whether to continue self-deploying or voluntarily engage in the auction.

One reason the digital divide exists is because broadband providers resist deploying internet access into rural areas unless the government is willing to shoulder the costs. Broadband providers have fewer customers to charge monthly fees in these areas, and handing the EBS band over to carriers does not magically create enough customers to cover a carrier’s cost of internet deployment. However, existing licensees have managed to provide essential internet service to rural areas — and they should be rewarded for living up to their mission, and the FCC’s mission, to connect all Americans.

As the FCC looks for the best way to reinvigorate the EBS band, it should prioritize educational entities that continue to do what they do best: connecting their communities.

Although only accredited educational institutions and nonprofit educational organizations can hold EBS licenses, most EBS band licensees currently lease their excess capacity to commercial providers like Sprint. However, it would not be fair for the FCC to label the band “underutilized” because the FCC itself has put a licensing “freeze” on the band in 2004 to transition it to broadband, to encourage leasing, and to halt new license applications. Since the licensing freeze signifies the FCC’s mismanagement of the band for over a decade, lifting the freeze and giving the current model a chance would enable more local communities to connect more quickly and efficiently, taking us a step further in closing the digital divide.

What’s more, wireless carriers like Sprint already have 600 MHz of spectrum in the low and mid-bands. The FCC has been commercializing many other valuable spectrum bands for carriers, including the upper 37, 39, and 47 GHz bands, the 28 GHz band, 24 GHz band, and the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, which will make available 150 MHz of mid-band spectrum for carriers. These are the bands that carriers are saving up in the name of winning the global race to 5G, which is surely important, but we should not be leaving behind the rural folks because of that race.

The EBS band is the only public interest band left to rural folks who would not even be enjoying 4G internet without the licensees, so the FCC should be cautious of moving to deliver the EBS band to carriers — in the name of 5G. By continuing to give the good spectrum bands to carriers, the FCC is noting that rural communities do not deserve the good, let alone the best, spectrum. This is the kind of messaging that the FCC should be strongly discouraging. If our goal with the EBS band is not about maximizing revenue for the commercial carriers, then at least this band ought to be preserved for “rural broadband.”

Therefore, without safety measures like priority filing windows for incumbent licensees, the FCC would risk widening the digital divide. Educational entities in communities in desperate need of basic internet service should be encouraged to keep doing what they are doing for their communities, and more of these entities should have the opportunity to apply for new EBS band licenses — without the FCC getting in the way.