Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel continued her backing of an incentive auction for Educational Broadband Service licenses at 2.5 GHz at a forum in Washington, D.C., framing it as a compromise option to “honor” the intent for educational use in the band while avoiding “collapsing” the current ecosystem.

At an event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance (video here), Rosenworcel outlined her proposal that an incentive auction be held for the EBS spectrum and the resulting funds dedicated to expanding students’ access to broadband services which are often needed to access and complete homework. She pointed to local initiatives such as mobile hot spot loans from K-12 schools, or Wi-Fi access points installed in school busses, as examples of programs that could potentially be supported or expanded.

“The goal is to honor [the band’s history]in a modern way,” Rosenworcel said.

The FCC last spring put out a public notice that it was re-thinking the use of the 2.5 GHz band, and comments were extended through most of the year. According to the FCC, access to the EBS spectrum has been strictly limited since 1995, and the spectrum currently lies fallow primarily in rural areas. Eligibility to hold an EBS license is limited to educational institutions and education-related non-profits and government organizations who can use it to transmit educational content, although EBS licensees can lease excess capacity to commercial wireless operators.

EBS licensees operate in 114 megahertz of the 2.5 GHz band, and the licenses general cover a Geographic Service Area with a radius of 35 miles; the remaining 80 megahertz of the band is assigned to the Broadband Radio Service (BRS), the FCC noted. According to the agency, there are 1,300 EBS licensees who hold more than 2,190 licenses.

The band, the FCC noted, is “the single largest band of contiguous spectrum below 3 gigahertz and has been identified as prime spectrum for next generation mobile operations, including 5G uses.” Rosenworcel said on Tuesday that given the propagation and amount of the 2.5 GHz spectrum, it is “a really big piece of the puzzle for 5G, especially for our rural communities.”

The FCC proposed several possibilities: rationalizing existing licenses; opening “local priority filing windows” so that certain users could get access to unassigned spectrum; and the possibility of an auction for some or all of the spectrum.

In general, the agency said that it was seeking more flexible and efficient use of the band. Rosenworcel argued that the “flexible use” is code for “collapsing the existing educational regime.” Asked by an audience member about the possibility of offering priority access to the spectrum in an auction scenario to educational institutions, Rosenworcel responded that such an approach would be at odds with how the agency has conducted auctions since 1994, as well as inconsistent with where she believes her fellow commissioners are positioned at this point.

“I’m trying to protect what we have and build some opportunities for the future,” she said. 

Sprint, which is a major leasee of Educational Broadband Service licenses, has opposed such an incentive auction, citing among other things the “long-term contractual relationships 2.5 GHz carriers have with their EBS partners.” The carrier said in filings with the FCC last October that its EBS leases have “continued criticality” and are part of a “mutually beneficial partnership with the EBS community which has enhanced Sprint’s current 4G LTE deployment and will enable its 5G mobile deployment in nine major markets in the first half of 2019.” Sprint indicated support for “rationalization” of existing licensees to county-based licenses, and opposes a change to census-tract-sized licenses.

T-Mobile US, meanwhile, said in filings that while it also supports county-based licenses, that it supports the elimination of an “educational use” requirement for EBS licensees altogether.

In a panel discussion after Rosenworcel’s remarks, Katherine Messier, director of development for the North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation, added that the EBS license holder she represents opposes an incentive auction. She also said that the move toward flexible use would create a “race to the bottom” and a “hostile lease environment” because spectrum leasees would be unwilling to create partnerships that result in services to rural communities.

Messier also argued that very few ENS licensees would participate in an incentive auction because of the long term of their contracted spectrum leases; she said that many leases are only about halfway through 30-year terms, and investment could be stranded if the terms were to change.

“While the band may appear fragmented in terms of license ownership … leases to a handful of wireless providers have already concentrated EBS licenses into manageable high value packages of spectrum used for wireless broadband by consumers. No further rationalization of the license ownership is needed to put fallow spectrum to use in the EBS band,” T-Mobile US said in comments to the FCC. It went on to claim that eliminating the educational use requirement would not impact existing educational use because licensees would still hold the licenses and could use the spectrum for educational purposes.

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