March 21, 2019
On March 7, the Schools, Health & Library Broadband Coalition (SHLB) hosted a Capitol Hill briefing titled “Window of Opportunity: How EBS Spectrum Can Close the Digital Divide.” The event featured a variety of speakers who have successfully implemented Educational Broadband Service (EBS) programs or who want access to new EBS licenses. The speakers included:
- Moderator: John Windhausen Jr., Executive Director, SHLB Coalition LinkedIn | Twitter | Website
- Katherine Messier, Director of Development, North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation; Founder and Executive Director, Mobile Beacon LinkedIn | Twitter | Website
- Gavin Leach, Vice President for Finance and Administration at Northern Michigan University LinkedIn | Twitter | Website
- Mitchell Koep, Chief Executive Officer, A Better Wireless LinkedIn | Website
- SuAnn Witt, State E-Rate/Tech Project Coordinator, Nebraska Department of Education LinkedIn | Twitter | Website
- Mariel Triggs, Chief Executive Officer, Mural Net LinkedIn | Twitter | Website
EBS is the only spectrum band dedicated to educational use. Under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, educational licensees can either deploy their own networks or lease spectrum to commercial partners in exchange for service and/or cash royalties that help deliver their educational mission.
Now rural educators want the same opportunity to access EBS as their urban counterparts. Due to a licensing freeze in 1995, only half of the U.S. geography has access to EBS. The half that is already licensed covers roughly 85 percent of the population, while the unassigned portion of EBS is not available to roughly 15 percent or approximately 50 million Americans, mostly in rural areas.
The FCC initiated a rulemaking proceeding last May that would finish licensing EBS. The SHLB event focused on the best way to do that – through priority licensing windows that would allow educators, nonprofits and Tribal Nations an opportunity to apply for new EBS licenses. Chairman Pai is the key supporter of this proposal.
One highlight from the event was third-grade student Hannalou Cathey explaining what it is like for her and her classmates living without broadband access to do homework – what is known as the “homework gap.” Cathey represents the roughly 12 million students without access to broadband at home, perhaps the cruelest part of the digital divide in America.
The event explained how EBS can help close both the digital divide and the homework gap if this critical public resource was made available to more schools and rural communities. Voqal supports the idea of using priority filing windows to finish licensing EBS. Not only would priority windows quickly finish licensing this band, but it would also give local communities opportunities to close the digital divide, especially in areas where larger commercial carriers have been unable to make an economic case to do so.
As Voqal has pointed out in the past, commercial carriers already have access to over 625 MHz of spectrum that is best suited for rural coverage. Even with this huge arsenal of spectrum, over 30 percent of Americans still lack access to broadband speeds.
As we enter the 5G era, the digital divide is only expected to worsen. Expensive 5G deployments will require significant urban investment from large national carriers, meaning rural residents – some of which have only 3G or worse no G’s – will fall even further behind their urban counterparts. Giving rural schools, nonprofits and Tribal Nations access to a critical resource – EBS spectrum – can give them the tools necessary to address this divide before it gets worse.