FCC Proposes New EBS Rules: What Does it Mean for the Future of EBS?

For the first time in over a decade, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to vote on May 10 to begin the process of a new rulemaking for the 2.5 GHz spectrum, also known as Educational Broadband Service (EBS). Spectrum is a set of radio waves used to transmit data, like FM radio, broadcast television or cellular phone data. The EBS band was set aside over a half-century ago for educational use and continues to serve as an invaluable educational resource to millions of Americans.

The proposed rules would be a dramatic shift in how the FCC regulates EBS. The key goals of the rulemaking are to make available more EBS spectrum for 5G wireless services and to make spectrum available in rural areas where the FCC has never assigned a license.

The 40-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) offers many suggested changes, but we wanted to highlight five key ones:

  1. Expanding Current License Areas – The NPRM proposes automatically expanding current EBS licenses either to the census tract or the county boundary. The original licenses covered a circle that has a radius of 35 miles because they were used for broadcasting educational content. The decision to expand licenses to census tract or county boundary is consequential – there are roughly 72,000 census tracts and just over 3,100 counties in the United States. This could result in very different territory covered depending on what the FCC ultimately decides.
  2. Eliminating the Educational Use Requirement – Under current rules, educational entities and nonprofits who serve educational entities are the only two groups eligible to hold an EBS license. These licenses holders must use at least 5% of the frequencies for activities that support the mission of educational entities. That means EBS licensees can license up to 95 percent of the use of the spectrum to commercial entities, such as a wireless phone company. The FCC wants to eliminate the 5 percent educational use requirement for existing licensees. Paradoxically, the FCC is proposing 20 percent educational use for new licensees.
  3. Creating “Flexibility” with Licenses – Despite this spectrum being set aside for educational use, the FCC also proposes making it possible to transfer or sell licenses to non-EBS eligible entities, such as wireless phone companies. In addition, it proposes eliminating the 30-year maximum lease term requirement. This would allow licensees to lease the spectrum indefinitely.
  4. Putting Unused Frequencies to Use – In many parts of the United States, there is no EBS licensee. With rare exceptions, the FCC stopped allocating licensees in the mid-1990s. As a result, roughly half the United States has no EBS licensee, meaning the spectrum is unused in many places. The FCC would like to develop a process to allow these frequencies to be put to use. The NPRM proposes a three-tiered local priority window for applying:

— Window 1: Allows existing local licensees with a local presence the ability to apply for unused licenses and expand to the county boundary.
— Window 2: Rural Tribal nations with less than 25,000 residents could apply for licenses.
— Window 3: Educational entities who have never had a license can apply for a new license.

New educational licensees would be required to comply with a 20 percent educational use requirement of all network capacity. In each local priority window, if there are competing applications the FCC would auction off the license to the highest bidder. In addition, any unclaimed licenses after the three windows would be auctioned off, with commercial entities eligible to buy.

The FCC will vote on the NPRM on May 10. There will be a public comment period and reply comment period that follows. There are many important and interesting decisions at stake. Voqal intends to engage early and often to advocate that this spectrum is put to educational use and that the rules are fair.