The Educational Broadband Service and Why it Matters for Schoolchildren and Unserved Communities

Benton Foundation

Monday, December 3, 2018

Digital Beat

The Educational Broadband Service and Why it Matters for Schoolchildren and Unserved Communities

Lee Solonche

The lack of affordable broadband access in the U.S. has resulted in large-scale educational inequities especially in rural areas where 31 percent of Americans have no choice of broadband providers. For many years, Educational Broadband Service (EBS) licensees have been dedicated to helping solve these inequities, but a proceeding at the Federal Communications Commission is putting these services at risk.

EBS licensees are accredited educational institutions (or nonprofits focused on serving the needs of accredited educational institutions).   For the last 50 years, EBS licensees have operated transmission facilities on the only spectrum reserved for educational use, the 2.5 GHz band.

EBS licenses were first issued by the FCC when America was engrossed in the race to dominate spaceflight. The aim was to distribute educational video into classrooms – a truly innovative approach at the time.

As technology evolved, so did the innovative uses of EBS. In the 1980s, the FCC allowed EBS licensees to lease spectrum, enabling public-private partnerships between educators and commercial providers that delivered educational video programming directly to homes in addition to schools. In the mid-2000s, the FCC adopted new rules allowing EBS spectrum to be used for wireless broadband service.  At all times, the FCC has preserved the educational objective of the 2.5GHz spectrum.

EBS advances broadband connectivity in educational settings. EBS licensees:

  1. Provide mobile hotspot checkout programs at schools and libraries that serve students with no broadband access at home, 
  2. Build county-wide wireless broadband networks for schools and residents, and
  3. Create public-private partnerships with commercial operators to drive further broadband deployment in unserved areas.

EBS is a true win-win-win for students and educators, wireless broadband deployment, rural communities, and low-income Americans.

Unfortunately, in 1995 the FCC stopped issuing new EBS licenses, leaving about half of the geographic areas of the country, primarily in rural areas, without access to this 2.5GHz spectrum. In these rural areas, EBS remains an untapped resource that could make a significant difference in ensuring that those without broadband aren’t left behind.

In May 2018, the FCC initiated a new proceeding to revisit its rules for the EBS spectrum band. This was a welcome step. But instead of building upon the band’s long and extensive educational legacy, and providing a critical resource for rural schools and communities desperate for broadband connectivity, the FCC is now considering commercializing the EBS band. Among other ideas, the FCC has proposed allowing EBS licenses to be held by non-educational entities and removing all requirements that this spectrum be used to support education. Rather than license EBS spectrum in rural areas to educational and tribal entities, the FCC is considering auctioning this educational resource to the highest bidder. The FCC’s rationale being that free market forces will result in the highest and best use of the spectrum.

Commercialization jeopardizes existing educational programs serving millions of students. In addition, there’s no guarantee commercial entities will be willing and able to solve the rural broadband build-out challenge without the participation of local educators. The economics of rural broadband deployment for commercial purposes only are simply not favorable. Commercial operators who do not see potential profits from rural communities will simply elect not to serve them. Educators are motivated to provide educational services to their communities. Meeting their objective of service, the need for rural broadband and digital equity can continue to be pursued through other means by educators. 

The FCC has a tremendous opportunity to use this proceeding to finish licensing EBS spectrum to educators and organizations determined to deliver needed broadband to their schools and communities. 

The time has come to expand the successful EBS-led programs that exist today to ensure the technology needs of students continue to be met for generations.

Lee Solonche is the Executive Director of the National EBS Association (NEBSA), the professional association for those institutions who hold EBS (formerly ITFS) licenses.  Solonche has been working in the fields of Telecommunications, Educational Curriculum Design and Administration for over 30 years including a stint as the Director of Educational Media and Technology Services at Vegas PBS and the Clark County, Nevada School District.

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
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Benton Foundation
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