As a new school year begins, internet usage continues to transform K-12 education. The majority of today’s teachers routinely make homework assignments with the expectation that students will go online to complete the work. But students don’t have equal access to high-speed broadband, and it’s inequitable for some students to stay up late doing homework simply because of a slow (or no) connection.

Also, we can foresee today that popular and useful applications are going to require a lot more spectrum: telehealth, the continued growth of video streaming and, importantly, the transition to super fast 5G wireless technology, which will power the Internet of Things, connected vehicles and many other innovations.

One straightforward way to meet these needs is a spectrum auction, sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to repurpose a currently-underutilized spectrum band for the broadband age and open up more wireless capacity for everyone, including for educational use.

In 2012, Congress took the bold step of authorizing a unique auction, one that would encourage voluntarily-participating broadcast television stations to sell their spectrum to meet the ever-expanding needs of wireless broadband. That led to the world’s first “broadband incentive auction,” which was conducted by the FCC.

An incentive auction is really two auctions. Broadcasters were incentivized to participate in a reverse auction (where the TV stations offering to sell spectrum for the lowest prices win) to sell spectrum that would then be allocated to wireless network operators through a traditional “forward” auction (where the highest price bidders prevail).

The auction worked. At its conclusion last year, the FCC reallocated 84 megahertz of spectrum for wireless use and brought in $19.8 billion, of which $10.05 billion compensated broadcasters who gave up spectrum and more than $7 billion went to reduce the federal deficit (every little billion helps).

Now, it’s time to use the mechanism again. The Educational Broadband Service (EBS), whose origin dates back to the Kennedy Administration, is currently underutilized.

This spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band is primarily held by educational and religious institutions, but most of it is currently leased by those institutions to mobile wireless operators, subject to limits under current regulations. The fact that this spectrum is now leased to wireless carriers to the greatest legally-possible extent underscores that the highest and best use for the spectrum is in helping to meet the needs of mobile data users.

Given these realities, it’s time to conduct an incentive auction for the spectrum, placing it under the ownership of wireless carriers, remove existing limits on the amount that can be utilized for commercial purposes and adequately compensate educational institutions that participate in the auction.

The idea of an incentive auction for the spectrum gained momentum when it was recently embraced by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who said that “we need to move beyond the status quo in the 2.5 GHz band. We need to find a way to honor the educational history of this spectrum and make more effective use in the present.” Following an auction, spectrum would contribute to closing the “Homework Gap” – the fact that up to one in three households do not subscribe to broadband service, while most teachers assign homework involving an online component. As many as 12 million children could be benefited, according to a report released last year.

Ms. Rosenworcel also noted that this spectrum is “prime,” with “the choice mix of propagation and capacity that are essential for widespread 5G deployment.”

An incentive auction works best when all parties have the right incentives to make the auction work. So open the forward auction to everyone who wants to use the spectrum – and make the reverse auction incentives strong so that current EBS spectrum holders will participate. They should be handsomely compensated at the end of an effective process.

An auction can be structured, as Commissioner Rosenworcel suggests, so that “the educational history of this band [can]inform our actions going forward,” not least by compensating spectrum holders who would be able to use the auction proceeds to expand opportunities for educational uses of broadband.

A second successful voluntary incentive auction can take place, furthering the transition to 5G and helping American children make the most of broadband in the educational setting.

The original idea of the EBS, formerly known as the Instructional Fixed Television Service, was to get television into schools to teach and broaden education. Now, we have even better opportunities to use today’s far more versatile multimedia technology to achieve that goal with fast broadband. It’s time to seize the vision – just as Jack Kennedy did over 50 years ago.

To learn more, download the “2.5 GHz Band – Prime Spectrum for Next-Generation Mobile Broadband” fact sheet.

Originally published at RCR Wireless