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FCC to Vote on Auction of Unused Spectrum Reserved for Educational Institutions and Nonprofits

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, testifies as the House Energy and Commerce Committee holds an oversight hearing of the FCC, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, testifies as the House Energy and Commerce Committee holds an oversight hearing of the FCC, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 15, 2019. J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

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The FCC will vote on whether to do away with educational use requirements for spectrum and give Native American tribes priority bidding to put up 5G wireless networks.

The Federal Communications Commission will vote in July on whether to auction unused mid-band wireless spectrum that could be put to use for deployment of 5G cell networks, Chairman Ajit Pai announced Tuesday.

Under the proposal, the FCC could auction to commercial entities unused 2.5GHz spectrum that has historically been reserved for educational institutions or nonprofits. Native American tribes would be given first crack at the unused spectrum in a bid to improve wireless access in rural areas, a senior FCC official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.

In a blog post, Pai on Tuesday touted the move as a way to “give incumbent users more flexibility in how they use the spectrum, but also provide opportunities for Tribal Nations and others to obtain access to unused 2.5 GHz.”

A November 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office concluded that broadband service on rural tribal lands “continues to lag behind the rest of the country.”

The report dinged the FCC’s efforts to expand broadband access to tribal lands, finding that efforts “to promote and support tribal entities’ access to spectrum have done little to increase tribal use of spectrum, as only very few tribes are accessing spectrum to be able to provide Internet service.”

The wireless spectrum for educational groups is reserved under the Educational Broadband Service. But the restrictions on EBS spectrum use has left “the single largest band of contiguous spectrum below 3 GHz” largely underutilized, Pai wrote.

“Making this valuable mid-band spectrum available for new mobile services will allow for more efficient and effective use of these airwaves and will advance U.S. leadership in 5G,” Pai wrote.

The proposal will be up for vote at the FCC’s July 10 meeting.

The vote could likely face pushback.

The U.S. Department of Education wrote to the FCC on June 7 asking it to maintain current educational use requirements and to not allow EBS licensees to transfer licenses to non-EBS eligible entities.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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