FCC adopts rule changes for EBS 2.5 GHz band, drops educational-use requirement

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday voted to adopt rule changes to the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) portion of the 2.5 GHz band, including dropping the educational-use requirement for licensees.

The order establishes a priority filing window for Tribal Nations to obtain unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum for use in their communities, after which remaining spectrum will be available to commercial entities via an auction expected to be held next year.

Although the 114-megahertz EBS portion of the band was originally intended for use by educational institutions to transmit video services, and later broadband, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that most current licensees don’t use the spectrum for educational purposes.

“Today, an overwhelming number of today’s EBS licensees lease an overwhelming amount of EBS spectrum out to wireless companies,” Pai said in a statement.  “Indeed, over 95% of current license holders for our 2,193 EBS licenses today lease much of this spectrum to non-educators.”

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For this reason, the FCC declined to establish priority windows for non-incumbent educational institutions or incumbent licensees. Pai said the FCC would be foolish “to allow entities to monetize this spectrum nationwide for purposes that have little to nothing to do with educating children.”

The order also adopts counties as the geographic basis for new overlay licenses, a change from the historical and somewhat messy EBS license scheme. Previously, EBS was licensed in Geographic Service Areas, consisting of a 35-mile radius from a specific point, with existing coverage circles overlapping. The changes also convert the EBS band plan to two roughly 50 MHz blocks of spectrum and a third smaller 16.5 MHz block.  

While Pai and Commissioner Brendan Carr touted the changes as an important step to opening up mid-band spectrum to help advance the country’s 5G leadership, others believe the auction structure is mainly a win for Sprint. Sprint is the primary owner of 2.5 GHz spectrum through lease agreements with educational institutions who are EBS licensees.

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Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissented in part, only approving of the priority filing window for Tribal Nations, and said the overlay auction system structurally advantages “a single nationwide carrier.”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly approved the measure, saying the removal of educational restrictions fosters a more vibrant secondary market. And, while he supported the overlay auction, O’Rielly at the meeting acknowledged “there is unlikely to be a mad rush for these licenses.”

“The lack of available spectrum in the largest markets makes it hard to characterize this as a true, mid-band play for 5G or next-generation services,” O’Rielly continued.

In late June, after the FCC first announced plans for the 2.5 GHz vote, BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk wrote in a post that if approved, the order would represent “a huge win” for Sprint, and would-be acquirer T-Mobile.

“Sprint will be able to more easily consolidate a whopping 194 MHz of contiguous mid-band spectrum and it would expand the geographic reach of Sprint’s spectrum, facilitating easier network deployment,” wrote Piecyk at the time. “Based on the structure of the auction and Sprint’s incumbent 2.5 spectrum position, it’s hard to see why any national operator would compete with Sprint to bid for this spectrum.”

The agency had indicated the new framework, which protects incumbent users, won’t impact private contracts but gives existing licensees more flexibility.

At Wednesday’s meeting the commission also approved procedures for the third high-band millimeter wave 5G spectrum auction, slated to start Dec. 10.