Breaking Down the FCC’s Latest Broadband Brouhaha

Jul 11, 2019

Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to auction off part of the wireless spectrum reserved for education. It provoked an outcry among education groups, who argued that the decision would reduce home internet access for students in rural areas—thereby widening the homework gap.

“For those who care about rural education, this is a big disappointment,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit membership organization for school technology leaders.

Broadband policy is dense, and many of the articles and statements on the subject are frankly hard to follow. Here’s our attempt at a lighthearted breakdown of the key facts and what everyone in education needs to know about yesterday’s big news.

Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly happened?

The FCC voted to approve an order opening up unused licenses in the 2.5 GHz band of spectrum to an auction where commercial telecom carriers can bid. Previously this band was only available to education institutions—known as the Educational Broadband Service, or EBS for short.

Opponents of the measure say that it strikes a blow to rural broadband access, particularly for homes, and thus misses a crucial opportunity to help close the homework gap.

Wait, I said start at the beginning. What’s spectrum?

Oh, sorry.

In an article last month for Wired, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel described spectrum as “the invisible airwaves that are used to send and receive the radio signals that power wireless communications.” Basically, these invisible airwaves transmit bits of data—maybe a little like how Mike Teavee was zapped into pieces and transported from one place to another in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” (Maybe not.)

gyfcat

The FCC decides which slices of spectrum can be used for which purposes—e.g., radio, TV, mobile data, broadband. It does this by providing licenses. Periodically, it auctions off parts of this spectrum, which can raise big revenue for the government.

Well, I love “Willy Wonka.” But you’re still going too fast. How do the licenses work?

They are assigned based on geography, mainly to counties or census tracts. Institutions like universities and school districts applied and were given EBS licenses—in other words, the legal right to use that particular spectrum (in this case 2.5 GHz) in that particular location.

After a license is obtained, schools can partner with a telecom company to provide broadband service to homes. “The spectrum is like the highway to the student’s house, but you still need a bus to deliver the data,” explains Reg Leichty, founder of Foresight Law + Policy, an education consultancy that works with schools on telecom policy-related matters.

He points to Desert Sands Unified, a rural California district that used its license to partner with a local telecom company to provide home service. Because the telecom provider was sharing the spectrum with the district—and not paying for it themselves—it was a cost effective way for both parties to provide service.

Some institutions claimed their licenses decades ago. Others, especially those in rural areas west of the Mississippi, were never claimed. Those are the ones that are being auctioned off following the recent FCC order. Those with existing licenses will get to keep them, even after the recent order.

So why don’t schools just claim their licenses before the forthcoming auction?

Good question. One proposal would have let education institutions do exactly that but it didn’t pass. (However, Tribal governments will be given the option to claim their licenses.)

For the most part, licenses haven’t actually been offered by the FCC since 1995. Why? “Nobody wanted them back then,” says John Windhausen, Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. The broadband technology was expensive to build out, so many of those who did receive licenses either held on to them or re-leased them to telecom providers—primarily Sprint—as a source of revenue. But now, prices have dropped and more districts are in a position to take advantage of the licenses.

Why auction them off at all though?

Spectrum auctions bring in revenue—more than $114 billion since 1994. But an economic study conducted by the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition estimated revenue to the government as a result of these auctions at between $52 and $156 million. (It’s an auction, so you can’t know for sure until it takes place.) The study estimated a much higher return on investment to the economy for granting the licenses to education institutions.

But Windhausen also theorizes—as others have—that the FCC wants telecom companies to use the 2.5 GHz spectrum for the 5G networks they’re building. The FCC is trying to open up more spectrum to carriers specifically for 5G, and the 2.5 GHz band fits squarely in that plan.

However, because of cost, “we are very skeptical they will deploy 5G in rural areas,” Windhausen tells EdSurge, meaning rural areas could see little benefit from yesterday’s decision. (Though the FCC has promised $20 billion in subsidies over the next decade for improving rural broadband.)

Windhausen also called the decision “illogical” in a related statement. “The FCC claims that the EBS spectrum is widely underutilized today, and that most licenses are leased to the commercial providers, so why would the FCC award even more licenses to these same companies?”

Will carriers still bid then?

Probably, Windhausen says. “I think what might happen is these commercial guys will scoop up these licenses as a defensive measure—to keep anybody else from getting them.”

Huh. Will this impact a lot of kids?

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition thinks so. Its economic study estimated that awarding licenses to schools would connect 10 times more students than auctions.

The study’s authors draw on previous research showing that students with broadband at home are 6 to 8 percent more likely to graduate high school, and calculated that an additional 22,000 students in rural areas could graduate given universal broadband access—and that hundreds of thousands of students would be impacted overall.

Additionally, the study estimates that a modified EBS licensing program could have reduced the homework gap by about 30 percent.

Who’s in favor of the order?

Telecom companies, mainly, and at least one related broadband association for wireless internet service providers applauded the decision.

Makes sense. Who’s against it?

The FCC’s Rosenworcel, who voted against the order, issued a statement outlining her dissent. She had proposed a voluntary incentive auction, where current EBS license holders could give back their licenses in exchange for a cut of the proceeds, which could fund 5G and other connectivity for students at home.

The Department of Education is against it as well. In a statement, Assistant Secretary Jim Blew encouraged the FCC to keep the current EBS license structure intact and to issue new licenses. “These measures will ensure that this valuable public resource can be leveraged by local communities to implement solutions to the ‘homework gap,’ close the digital divide in rural areas, and provide access to affordable broadband.”

Other organizations, such as Windhausen’s SHLB; the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA); CoSN and other EBS-related groups, all came out against it, as did leaders in states with large rural populations such as Nebraska and Utah.

That was a lot of acronyms.

IKR?

I’m just here for the scorching hot takes. What are the juiciest quotes?

Hoo boy, how long do you have?

“Chairman Ajit Pai is making it clear for all to see that kids and families are not a priority for him,” said Common Sense founder and CEO James Steyer, who added that Pai “is in the pockets of big media companies and has no interest in improving the lives of kids and families.”

Voqal, a coalition of EBS licensees, was similarly blunt. “Today’s vote doubles down on the same auction-driven spectrum policies that have left rural America unserved and low-income students forced to do their homework on WiFi in McDonald’s parking lots,” said President John Schwartz.

In a tweet, Rosenworcel voiced her opposition and referenced the Kennedy administration—which originally set aside the 2.5 GHz spectrum for education use, namely for education television.

Katherine Messier, the executive director of the nonprofit Mobile Beacon, the second largest national EBS provider, said: “To be clear, this proceeding was never about pitting educational needs against winning the race to 5G ... Instead of developing policy, that maximizes both educational and commercial interests by modernizing this band, this FCC has chosen to support only commercial interests.”

“After failing for 20 years to help school districts acquire new educational broadband service licenses, the FCC’s vote is a loss for teachers and students,” says Krueger. “This is especially true for learners in rural communities who are consistently passed over in favor of purely commercial interests. Today’s action continues that unfortunate trend.”

This is America. Isn’t somebody going to sue?

Leichty of Foresight Law + Policy doesn’t know if there is a basis for a lawsuit since procedures were followed. But Windhausen isn’t so sure. “Potentially, yes,” he says regarding grounds for legal action.

“We’re not making any commitments but there is a possibility that this could be considered an arbitrary and capricious decision because it does not reflect the evidence in the record,” Windhausen says.

A more likely reversal could come from Congress, who could halt the auctions.

Wait, Congress? We’re talking about the same Congress, right?

Leichty admits that while “it would be difficult, it’s not inconceivable Congress could step in before the spectrum is auctioned and force the FCC to a different outcome.” He points to an open letter opposing the auctions signed by most of Nebraska’s representatives in the House—and its two Republican Senators—as evidence that there is broad bipartisan support for overturning the decision.

He advises those who feel strongly about the matter to call their Congressional representatives.


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