Many students, particularly in rural and remote areas, still don’t have access to a reliable and fast internet connection. Some of these students will have a harder time doing their homework and may even struggle to keep up with their peers who do have reliable internet access. This digital divide between those with and without stable internet access is often referred to as the “homework gap.”

In an effort to close the homework gap, many educators and policy makers are looking to the Educational Broadband Service, or EBS. EBS is a 2.5 GHz spectrum band that is the largest band of contiguous spectrum below 3 GHz. Its technical characteristics make this spectrum band highly suitable for next-generation mobile broadband services and could be used to create high-speed broadband access in underserved areas of the country.

Lindsay McKenzie of Inside Higher Ed recently published an article that outlines arguments for and against using a voluntary auction of EBS spectrum to help close the homework gap. Here’s an excerpt from the article that outlines the case for selling EBS spectrum to telecommunications companies and using the proceeds to fund government-led initiatives to close the homework gap:

Fred Campbell, director of Tech Knowledge, a technology policy think tank, wrote a recent report outlining why auctioning off the EBS and creating a needs-based subsidy for underfunded K-12 schools is the best way forward.

There are around 1,300 nonprofit organizations, schools and colleges with EBS licenses, yet Campbell argues the spectrum is not being used to its full potential.

The FCC estimates that about 90 percent of all EBS license holders lease their spectrum rights out to commercial wireless service providers such as Sprint and use the payments as a revenue source. Campbell, who formerly headed the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, described this practice as an “implicit federal subsidy” for the “lucky few” institutions that got EBS licenses more than 20 years ago. He noted that at least 20 universities with endowments of more than $1 billion, such as Emory University in Georgia, Purdue University in Indiana and Ohio State University, hold EBS licenses. Many of these institutions are leasing out their spectrum and pocketing the proceeds, he said.

Institutions have been permitted to lease out their spectrum since 1983, on the condition that they retain 5 percent of their capacity for educational use, but the requirements for meeting this condition are unclear, said Campbell. The 2.5-GHz spectrum was earmarked for educational use by the administration of President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

“It does not serve the FCC’s mission of the public interest to subsidize the general operations of these elite institutions and other well-funded school systems at the expense of closing the homework gap for K-12 students in rural and underserved communities,” he wrote in his paper.

The FCC could break the existing lease agreements, but Campbell lays out the framework for a voluntary auction in which EBS license holders could choose to participate. He argues that institutions should be paid a lump sum, in exchange for their licenses, that is several times higher than what they might earn from leasing out their spectrum over a 30-year period.

McKenzie goes on to show how the idea of auctioning off the EBS to help close the homework gap is endorsed by telecommunications policy leaders, including FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. She writes:

The idea of auctioning off the EBS appears to be gaining momentum. The Internet Innovation Alliance — a coalition of businesses (most notably telecom giant AT&T) and nonprofits that advocate for broadband expansion — held an event in January discussing how such an auction might work.

“The great promise of using this spectrum for educational purposes has really not lived up to its potential,” FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at the January event. “Why don’t we give those who hold these licenses a choice?”

Institutions could choose to hold on to their licenses under the same terms, or they could choose to “sell them back to the agency,” she said.

“We can repackage all those licenses that are sold to us and sell them out for broadband use. Then the revenues from that can be used to fund homework gap initiatives in every state,” said Rosenworcel. “I think that honors the legacy that the Kennedy administration worked so hard to set up. But it does it in a totally modern way.”

Continue reading McKenzie’s full article here.