By a unanimous vote of 4-0, the FCC launched rulemaking proceedings yesterday at its May open meeting to consider a flexible use framework that would enable commercial entities to obtain licenses to provide fifth-generation (5G) wireless broadband services in the 2.5 GHz band.

Viewed as a prime contiguous spectrum resource for 5G services, the 2.5 GHz (i.e., 2496-2590 MHz) band was designated by the FCC five decades ago for use by instructional television fixed services, and later, for use by educational broadband service (EBS) licensees. More than half of the available EBS spectrum throughout the U.S. remains fallow, and a significant percentage of the remaining EBS spectrum is leased by educational entities to the wireless industry. Lamenting that the 2.5 GHz band has persisted in this state “for more than 20 years,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai emphasized at yesterday’s open meeting that “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.”

As such, the FCC proclaimed in a press statement that the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeks to facilitate wider and more flexible use of the 2.5 GHz band by rationalizing “the service areas of existing EBS licensees” and by providing “additional flexibility to current and future EBS licensees.” To accomplish these objectives, the NPRM seeks stakeholder comment on proposals to establish up to three local priority filing windows that would permit applicants located physically within each license area to access 2.5 GHz spectrum. The first of these filing windows would be open to existing EBS licensees desiring to expand their service areas to county boundaries. The second filing window would provide an opportunity for tribal nations in rural areas to acquire EBS licenses, and the third window would be open to educational entities that do not currently hold an EBS license. Remaining spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band would be auctioned to the wireless industry, and current EBS licensees who have traditionally leased their channels to commercial wireless carriers would be permitted to assign or transfer control of their licenses to such carriers for the first time. 

Observing that, in adopting the NPRM, “the Commission begins to step away from central planning and toward letting the market determine the band’s highest and best use,” Commissioner Brendan Carr told reporters that the NPRM “builds on our modern approach to spectrum policy which favors flexible use.” While casting his vote in favor of the NPRM, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly warned about the possibility “of repeating past spectrum policy mistakes by creating new local priority windows for preferred entities” that would place spectrum in the hands of such entities for free and that “could be immediately leased or flipped to commercial providers.” In voicing her support for the NPRM, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel reminded her colleagues that “while we seek comment on how to increase flexibility for existing licensees, we must be mindful of the educational imperatives that have always informed their use.”

Although some educational entities including the North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation expressed concern “that the FCC is considering changes that could remove the educational core of this public resource,” wireless industry representatives applauded the agency’s action. As a spokeswoman for the Wireless Communications Association told reporters that her group “is pleased that the Commission has finally moved forward . . . to modify its rules to reflect the modern realities of how EBS spectrum is actually used,” an official of Sprint described the NPRM’s adoption as “a significant step forward in enhancing existing 4G services and future 5G deployments, and we plan to actively participate in the proceeding.”