Future of Learning

FCC changes its rules, puts educational spectrum up for open auction

Rural school districts had hoped to close “homework gaps” via access to wireless spectrum set aside for educational use 50 years ago

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educational broadband service

In Albemarle County, Virginia, where school officials estimate up to 20 percent of students lack home broadband, radio towers rise above an apple orchard on Carters Mountain, outside Charlottesville. The district uses them to send internet signals from a school rooftop into homes in a valley 10 miles below.

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 A lot has been written about the “homework gap” in recent years, meaning the disadvantage placed on students in low-income and rural areas where they can’t get speedy internet service to keep up with the expectations schools increasingly have for student online access. Some rural districts have started building their own broadband networks, and many others had hoped to follow their lead using a chunk of bandwidth long ago set aside by the federal government for educational purposes.

Those hopes were dashed last week, when the FCC revised its rules and decided to sell licenses to that bandwidth at open auction. At issue is a small slice of electromagnetic spectrum—the frequencies that carry wireless signals for everything from remote controls to radio—that the government carved out more than 50 years ago for instructional television, and later designated Educational Broadband Service, or EBS, for the internet age. Now, on the cusp of issuing a bunch of new EBS licenses that will cover huge swaths of rural America, the FCC decided to turn EBS over to the free market.

The minimal educational-use requirements for EBS spectrum are no more. Even more disappointing to rural education advocates was the FCC’s decision to axe a proposal that schools and education nonprofits get first dibs on new spectrum licenses before a competitive bidding process opens (a pre-auction window for Native American tribes was kept).

Related: Will a new push for free wireless internet help rural students get online?

“We are heartbroken,” said Tom Rolfes, education IT manager for the Nebraska Information Technology Commission. Rolfes’s group is part of a Nebraska initiative to wirelessly extend school broadband into rural communities where more than a third of the students have no broadband access at home, according to a state study. The Nebraskans already have the wired backbone of their network in place, connecting all their schools. They also have towers ready to blast high-speed internet into surrounding communities. What they don’t have is legal access to spectrum to carry the signal.

In June, the Department of Education urged the FCC commissioner to “maintain and modernize the current educational priority of EBS,” which meant keeping pre-auction access to spectrum licenses for schools and their partner organizations. The Western Governors’ Association made a similar written appeal to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, but to no avail.

“It’s surprising to me that the Commission says to the Department of Education and to the representatives of rural America, ‘We don’t care about your perspective,’ ” said Reg Leichty, a legal and policy consultant for CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking).

Backers of the FCC’s decision, however, call it an overdue fix for an antiquated program that tied up a valuable resource with red tape and never lived up to its educational mission. Many schools and nonprofits previously granted spectrum didn’t have the wherewithal to use it themselves and instead leased it to commercial telecoms.

“Overall, it’s the right move,” said Joe Kane, a technology policy fellow at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. “We’ve kind of realized that schools aren’t necessarily the best at operating broadband networks, so we should let people specialize.”

Few would argue that EBS worked as intended. The program had grown into a tangle of outdated government directives and shadowy lease deals hidden behind non-disclosure agreements. But, rural education advocates argue that rapid changes in technology and public-private partnerships now make DIY broadband networks feasible for rural districts that, a decade ago, would never have dared such projects (we wrote about a few of these efforts here).

“The equipment is now off-the-shelf, and there are several school districts that have already deployed EBS networks,” said John Windhausen Jr. executive director of the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable broadband for public institutions. “This is not a field of dreams scenario. We have evidence out there that schools can make good use of this spectrum.”

Related: A school district is building a DIY broadband network

Of course, districts and their nonprofit allies can still bid for the spectrum licenses, but these groups suspect they’ll have little chance against national telecoms, which see the EBS frequencies as perfect for the latest 5G networking technologies.

The FCC doesn’t consider that a problem. Quite the contrary. According to an FCC “fact sheet” on their EBS decisions, a free-market approach to issuing the new licenses is “far more likely to deliver value to educational institutions and to help close the digital divide than the status quo.”

Indeed, the FCC’s ruling stipulates that new license holders build a broadband network rather than sit on their spectrum rights or resell them. Specifically, they’ll have eight years to cover 80 percent of the population in their licensed area.

But education advocates like Windhausen say the profit motive will keep putting the most sparsely populated areas last, just as it has done with existing commercial broadband networks. For districts in such areas, by contrast, “there’s much more urgency for schools to address the needs of all their students right away,” he said.

Jason Eyre, technology department coordinator for Utah’s Murray City School district and a leader in his state’s rural broadband effort, said “We were devastated by the FCC’s decision.” But with EBS off the table, he added, “we’ll look at other parts of the spectrum that could help us achieve our goal and get our kids connected.”

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