Coalition: Use FCC spectrum auction money to tackle digital divide

Nine organizations on Wednesday announced the launch of Airwaves for Equity, a coalition focused on asking Congress to dedicate the net proceeds from future spectrum auctions to support digital literacy and inclusion efforts.

Specifically, they want to establish a Digital Equity Foundation, with the goal of providing sustainable funding for initiatives designed to promote digital literacy, including addressing the K-12 homework gap, access for people with disabilities and expanding telehealth.  

Under the Airwaves for Equity proposal, Congress would dedicate a “substantial portion” of wireless spectrum auction revenues to endow the foundation. The most recent FCC auction, of 3.45 GHz airwaves, raised more than $21.8 billion, and the one before that, the C-band 3.7 GHz auction, raised over $81 billion.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides over $60 billion to make broadband internet connections accessible and more affordable. But these efforts will fall short if people don’t know how to use technology or cannot tap its value for their most basic needs,” said Michael Calabrese, director, Wireless Future Project at New America's Open Technology Institute, in a statement. “Airwaves for Equity proposes a sustainable way to bridge this remaining challenge of the digital divide by promoting digital literacy and adoption efforts.”

Leaders on the Senate Commerce Committee and House Energy and Commerce from both parties have embraced the idea of dedicating auction proceeds to help close the digital divide, according to the coalition. And because the FCC’s auction authority expires at the end of this fiscal on September 30 and Congress will be looking to renew it, it’s a good time to include this stipulation as part of the next round.

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Here’s a list of the organizations in the coalition: the American Library Association (ALA), the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, the Center for Rural Strategies, Common Sense Media, Consumer Reports, National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), Public Knowledge, the Open Technology Institute at New America and the Schools Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition.

Competing for auction dollars

Airwaves for Equity certainty isn’t the only entity with an eye on future spectrum auction proceeds.

On Tuesday, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal to dedicate proceeds from upcoming auctions toward next generation 911 services.

Historically, the nation’s 911 systems have been updated through fees on bills and a mix of town, county and state funding measures. By designating auction proceeds for this purpose, public safety agencies would benefit in every state and territory, according to the chairwoman’s proposal.

Considering the kinds of revenue that auctions have been raising, is it possible there’s enough to go around?

Calabrese suggested as much. Auctions have raised more than $200 billion since they began in the 1990s. The Communications Act requires the FCC to deposit net proceeds in the U.S. Treasury unless Congress determines otherwise. That’s only happened once:  When Congress last renewed the FCC’s auction authority, in 2012, it provided that the initial $7.5 billion in future auction revenue be dedicated to establish the FirstNet Public Safety Trust Fund, essentially paying the start-up costs for FirstNet, he said.   

During a panel discussion on Wednesday, members of Airwaves for Equity said the funds for improving digital literacy would be in addition to the kinds of spectrum allocations that have been made for Educational Broadband Service (EBS), where part of the 2.5 GHz band is allocated for EBS. It’s also separate from efforts to get more unlicensed spectrum for things like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and new innovations.

Calabrese said there aren’t any big auctions in the immediate pipeline. However, there will be opportunities for future auctions to make a difference.

“The FCC is probably not going to have another very big auction for a few years,” he said. Last year, two auctions generated more than $100 billion. “That was unusual,” he added, noting the nature of auctions is “lumpy.”

However, there’s an evolving and consistent need to address digital literacy and inclusion efforts. The last time Congress extended auction authority, it was for 10 years, so when there is another large auction that can be used to fund this endeavor, the funding should be available for a number of years after that, he said.