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2.5 GHz Revival Could Be Leading to Another Incentive Auction

Randy Sukow May 10, 2018

Last year, for better or worse, the FCC completed its first incentive auction to repurpose and redistribute valuable, low-band but underutilized TV broadcast licenses for wireless broadband. It was a complex, years-long process that yielded much less revenue for the federal government than expected. It is likely to take another year before all TV incentive auction license winners will be able to begin operating on those bands.

But the FCC has identified another block of valuable, but underutilized spectrum at 2.5 GHz (2496-2690 MHz). The Commission is again considering whether to invite incumbent licensees to turn in their licenses and share in the revenue from a later auction of that spectrum to wireless internet providers, especially those in rural areas.

The FCC this morning adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to reorganize the 2.5 GHz Educational Broadband Service (EBS), which the Commission set aside about 13 years ago for schools to establish educational-based wireless broadband. EBS replaced the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), an educational TV band established in the 1960s. However, whether schools intended to use their licenses for broadband or broadcast, most have ended up not using them for any educational purposes for the past 50 years.

“This has to change,” said Chairman Ajit Pai during this morning’s meeting. “We need to get this valuable spectrum into the hands of those who will provide service including 5G to Americans across the country, particularly in rural areas where the spectrum is currently mostly unused.”

Some analysts recently have observed that the United States could fall behind other countries in 5G development due to the lack of available “mid-range” spectrum. Opening greater access to the EBS band could be one way to treat that problem.

“The 2.5 GHZ band lies fallow in about half the country and we estimate more than 90 percent of the EBS licenses held by educational institutions are leased to other entities,” Commissioner Brandon Carr said (pictured). “Through this notice, the Commission begins to step away from central planning and towards letting the market determine the band's highest and best use.”

The fact that wireless ISPs have been interested in 2.5 GHz leases demonstrates that there is a market for them and that it is possible for the FCC to find a way to have the band used more efficiently, Carr said.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel agreed that a new incentive auction might be the right course for the EBS band. At the same time, she urged that the new policy still be tied in some way to its original educational goals.

“What if we took the revenue from this effort and used it to support new initiatives to bridge the ‘homework gap’ and ensure every child has the internet access they need for school work? This would be a win for students and a win for wireless service,” she said.

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