Critics blast FCC’s planned changes to EBS 2.5 GHz band, citing harm to education

As the Federal Communications Commission prepares to vote on changes to use requirements for a portion of the 2.5 GHz band, certain nonprofit groups and incumbent users voiced criticism Wednesday, citing harm to education and rural Americans.

The draft order, released Wednesday, would eliminate educational-use requirements currently in place for licenses in the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) portion of the band, establish a priority filing window for rural Tribal Nations to obtain spectrum, and then auction off remaining unused white space portions of the spectrum that could be used for 5G.

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, an advocacy group supporting broadband connectivity for institutions and communities, opposed the order saying social and economic benefits of awarding licenses to schools and Tribal Nations would be significantly greater than moving directly to an auction.

“Eliminating the educational priority for EBS would be disastrous for online learning, 5G deployment, and rural consumers," said John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, in a statement. "The best way to encourage 5G in rural markets is to award licenses to educational institutions that live and work in their communities and whose mission is to serve the needs of students.”

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The FCC said the new framework will give incumbent users more flexibility while providing opportunities for other parties to make use of the key midband spectrum, much of which has gone largely unused. The order also enables EBS licensees to transfer their licenses to commercial entities if they choose to do so.

The agency disagreed with SHLB’s analysis, according to the draft order, which states the Commission has recognized that spectrum auctions enable market forces to decide “the highest and best use of scarce spectrum and the highest value user.”

“We find that auctioning overlay licenses for remaining white spaces will be a more efficient and effective means of addressing the digital divide, as new EBS licensees will have both the market incentives and flexibility to pursue the most efficient deployment of this spectrum,” according to the FCC draft order.

Rhode Island-based North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation (NACEPF), which is the second largest EBS licensee in the United States, said the changes threaten long-term sustainability of existing programs serving more than 450,000 low-income and rural Americans.

“With the release of this draft Order, the FCC defies the unanimous recommendations of the educational community, public interest groups, rural educators, the U.S. Department of Education, and Congress to preserve the educational and public interest benefits of this spectrum,” said Katherine Messier, executive director of Mobile Beacon and director of Development at NACEPF, in a statement. “The FCC will delay 5G and rural deployment through a lengthy auction process that will only result in the spectrum being controlled by the same commercial entities that have already been given access to 625 MHz of spectrum below 3 GHz that they are not using to serve these same rural areas.”

The new framework also eliminates lease restrictions and does not impact any current private contracts. (Sprint is a large holder of 2.5 GHz spectrum through lease agreements with incumbent EBS licensees including Mobile Beacon.)

One group pleased with the changes is WISPA, although the group took issue with certain aspects of auction design it said could exclude small providers from participating meaningfully. Specifically, WISPA was disappointed that the auction as proposed would not allow bidding credits and would be in one large 100 MHz block and a smaller 16.5 MHz block.

“The flexibility afforded to EBS licensees represents an important breakthrough for this largely fallow band, though we wish the FCC had proposed an auction design better suited to the needs of small providers,” said Claude Aiken, president and CEO of WISPA, in a statement.

A date for the auction has not been set, but could immediately follow the priority filing window. Senior FCC officials indicated the Tribal Nation filing window may take place in parallel with the next high-band spectrum auction scheduled to start Dec. 10.

The order will be up for vote at the commission’s July 10 meeting.

At the open meeting, the agency also plans to consider procedures for the third millimeter wave 5G spectrum auction and rules promoting broadband deployment in multiple tenant environments, according to a tentative agenda released Wednesday.