Let’s Give Schools a Tool to Solve the Homework Gap

Benton Foundation

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Digital Beat

Let’s Give Schools a Tool to Solve the Homework Gap

John Windhausen Jr

One of the most disturbing aspects of the digital divide is the “homework gap.” The term – first coined by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel – describes the situation faced by the estimated 12 million students that cannot complete their school assignments because they have no broadband access at home. As she notes, roughly 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires a broadband connection, which means that many students, especially in low-income communities, are missing out on the educational opportunities afforded to their connected peers.

Fortunately, there’s a valuable slice of wireless spectrum that can help solve the homework gap. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Pai launched a proceeding in 2018 to award new wireless licenses to schools, colleges, and other educational institutions. These new licenses would operate in the 2.5 GHz band known as Educational Broadband Service (EBS). Some communities received EBS licenses over twenty years ago, but the EBS licensing regime has been almost completely frozen since then, and no EBS licenses were issued for about one-half of the United States territory, mostly in rural markets. Under Chairman Pai’s proposal, priority for these new licenses would be given to tribal entities and educational institutions, similar to the way the EBS licenses were awarded in more urban markets over twenty years ago.  

The award of EBS licenses to school systems in the past was not perfect, but it had many successes. Northern Michigan University (NMU) is one such example. In 2008, the institution acquired EBS licenses via an FCC waiver to provide robust broadband access for students, faculty, and staff off-campus in the remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In a recent op-ed, NMU president Fritz J. Erickson wrote that the school’s experience “validates that EBS is an effective mechanism – perhaps the most effective mechanism – to bring the promise of wireless broadband service to rural areas.”

The FCC Chairman’s proposal would enable schools and universities – even in rural areas – to replicate NMU’s model. Unfortunately, the issue has been clouded by alternative ideas that, while well-meaning, would not provide a long-term solution to the homework gap problem. Some propose that the new EBS licenses should be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Under this approach, commercial companies could buy these licenses and, at least in theory, use them for their “highest and best use.” While auctions are suitable in other spectrum bands, the EBS band is special because of its unique public interest pedigree. The FCC is already scheduled to auction licenses in six other frequency bands in the next two years – awarding the EBS licenses to rural tribal nations and educational institutions would provide a public interest alternative to complement the auctions for these other spectrum bands.

Commissioner Rosenworcel has floated another idea – allowing existing EBS licensees to voluntarily sell their licenses to a commercial provider, and the government would capture some of these funds to address the homework gap. While Commissioner Rosenworcel should be credited for her creativity in developing this “incentive auction” idea, it faces a number of significant challenges. Creating an incentive auction regime would likely require an act of Congress, which could take years. More fundamentally, it is highly questionable that enough funding could be raised through this one-time “private auction” to meaningfully address the homework gap in the long run.  

The best way to address the homework gap is to put these licenses in the hands of the institutions that have the greatest incentive to solve it – the educational institutions themselves. NMU and school systems in Kings County and Imperial County, California, and Albemarle County, Virginia, have demonstrated success in building out their own EBS networks. EBS licenses could also be awarded to state departments of education who can aggregate the licenses and connect EBS antennas to their fiber backbone networks, as proposed by Nebraska, Utah, and North Carolina. School systems could be incented to enter public-private partnerships with commercial companies who have experience building and operating these networks.

This is not to say that the existing EBS regime is picture perfect. The current rules, which require licensees to devote a certain percentage of time for educational use, are obsolete. Instead, the FCC should require all EBS licensees to provide low-cost ($10/month) wireless broadband service to low-income families. The FCC can also do more to increase transparency by requiring licensees to demonstrate that the public will benefit from these licenses in proportion to their economic value.   

The end goal of the EBS proceeding should not be to generate revenue and commercialize the EBS segment of the band; rather it should be focused on permanently addressing the homework gap, closing the digital divide in rural areas, ensuring affordable broadband access for all, and accelerating 5G services at a critical time. Auctions will fail to achieve these goals. Putting these licenses in the hands of the schools and state departments of education will ensure that the needs of students are paramount.  

John Windhausen Jr. is the executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. Regarded as the leading champion for anchor institution broadband, Windhausen founded the SHLB Coalition in 2009 to pursue the goal of gigabit connectivity for every anchor in the country. He also sits on the board of directors for the Michigan Collegiate Telecommunications Association (MiCTA) and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Windhausen holds a J.D. from UCLA Law School and bachelor's degree in history from Yale University. 

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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