For students at Burton Middle School in Porterville, California, a small city at the southeast corner of the massive and rural San Joaquin Valley where the poverty level is 30 percent, a Wi-Fi signal outside of the school is hard to come by.
In a nation where an estimated 70 percent of teachers assign homework requiring a broadband connection, internet access is often inaccessible for poor people and minorities, and a quarter of the students in Porterville lacked home internet access as recently as five years ago.
Then the school partnered with Mobile Beacon, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that offers low-cost broadband and Wi-Fi hotspots to schools and libraries in struggling communities. It provided Burton with 150 mobile hotspots and broadband connectivity to families for $10 per month, far cheaper than a commercial provider would charge.
The organization provides internet service using a slice of the U.S. airwaves called the Educational Broadband Service, which has occupied a swath of the 2.5 gigahertz band of spectrum since the Kennedy administration and is reserved for licensees who commit to using their access for educational purposes.
In rural and impoverished communities around the country, students use the EBS spectrum for Wi-Fi access during long school bus rides and to hear lectures from far-flung metropolitan campuses. It can help connect children who are chronically absent because of illness, addiction recovery or farming season.
But recently, the Federal Communications Commission approved a plan to scrap the band’s educational requirement and auction its unlicensed parts to the highest bidder. The goal, according to Ajit Pai, the commission’s Republican chairman, is to clear the airwaves and make space for the fifth-generation wireless network, known as 5G.
Critics of the decision, including the Trump administration, say the FCC is erasing an opportunity to close “the homework gap,” which divides American children who have internet at home from the 12 million who don’t.
They’re also skeptical of Pai’s assurance that, without the educational requirement, the private sector will close the digital divide for students, especially in rural areas where it makes little economic sense to build expensive wireless networks.
“Slowly but surely this is going to end up a fully commercialized band,” said Katherine Messier, founder of Mobile Beacon.
Originally called Instructional Television Fixed Service, EBS was a product of a law signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Envisioned as a high-tech way to televise lectures and other programs in schools, the FCC issued licenses for the 2.5 GHz band to schools and universities.
Since then, the FCC has altered the structure of the program to allow licensees to lease a portion of their spectrum for commercial use with the rationale that schools could use the revenue for education, thereby upholding the program’s intention. In most cases, schools have partnered with commercial lessees to build out build large-scale, high-speed wireless networks, retaining a minimum of 5 percent of the available spectrum for education.
Today, EBS consists of 2,193 licenses belonging to 1,300 licensees, according to the FCC, the vast majority of which lie east of the Mississippi River. Each license covers a 35-mile radius, and about 85 percent of the population lives within one of those zones. Unlicensed areas cover about half the country — mostly in the Midwest and West — but only 15 percent of the population. The FCC hasn’t issued a new license for the band in over two decades.
Since then, technology has become ubiquitous in schools, and internet access, more than ever before, is considered a crucial ingredient for success.
But 10 percent of U.S. households with school-age children didn’t have a high-speed connection in 2017, according to census data. Among poor students of color, the rates are even higher.
The divide, first dubbed the “homework gap” in a 2015 HuffPost op-ed by Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, forces students to jump through hoops to keep up in school. According to Pew, 35 percent of U.S. teens in 2015 said they sometimes or often had to do their homework on a cellphone, 17 percent were unable to complete assignments due to a lack of reliable service, and 12 percent used public Wi-Fi because none was available at home.
“I’ve seen it firsthand in rural areas, urban areas, and everywhere in between,” Rosenworcel said in a speech at the University of Colorado last fall.
Rosenworcel opposed a push for “flexible use” of the band, which she considered code for eliminating the band’s educational requirement and proposed a voluntary “incentive auction” that would offer schools the option to sell back licenses in return for a portion of the proceeds from its resale in a general auction. The FCC would then use the auction funds to subsidize educational programs designed to close the homework gap.
But she was unsuccessful. With the exception of a carve-out for Indian country that would allow tribes to bid on spectrum before the private sector, she voted against Pai’s plan. But the final tally was 3-2, along party lines.
In the 14 months that preceded the FCC’s vote, battle lines drawn along the 2.5 GHz spectrum pitted Pai and private sector companies like Sprint, which leases spectrum on 67 percent of EBS licenses, against Rosenworcel, education advocates and the Trump administration.
In a filing last August, Sprint supported eliminating the band’s educational requirement, arguing that schools should have the option to sell.
“Whether an EBS licensee ultimately assigns or transfers an EBS license to a non-educational party should be that licensee’s decision, not the commission’s,” Sprint said. It’s a decision “EBS licensees are best able to determine.”
The company also strongly opposed Rosenworcel’s proposed incentive auction, calling it “not feasible from a commercial or regulatory perspective” since most EBS licenses are under contract with private sector companies. (Sprint itself controls 67 percent of them.)
Later, the Department of Education weighed in, expressing “concern” in a filing with the commission that eliminating the requirement would “result in a failure to meet the needs of students in unserved or underserved communities.”
But at the FCC’s July meeting, Pai argued that maintaining the status quo would “exacerbate rather than close the homework gap.”
Despite Pai’s confidence that enabling the private sector’s access to the 2.5 GHz band will jumpstart the development of 5G wireless networks, critics are less sure. They say there’s little chance companies will build 5G networks in rural areas with so few paying customers.
“[The FCC] is buying into the false hope that commercial providers are going to deploy 5G in these rural markets,” said John Windhausen, president of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. “But that’s just a pipe dream.”