libraryThe Center for Boundless Innovation in Technology has an idea for how to fund President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, which aims to bring 100 Mbps broadband to 99% of the nation’s schools within five years. In a white paper released today, CBIT Executive Director Fred B. Campbell advocates auctioning 117.5 MHz of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band known as the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) band.

In major metros that spectrum is currently licensed to schools who have leased most of the capacity to Sprint, the white paper titled “The Broken Promise of the 2.5 GHz band,” explains. In more rural areas in 800 counties, the spectrum has not been licensed and is unused, the paper states.

Although the spectrum was initially allocated to schools for broadcast use, rules adopted subsequently allowed the schools to lease all but 5% of capacity to commercial entities – an option many schools have exercised, Campbell explains.

Campbell argues that funding currently envisioned for the ConnectED initiative is insufficient to achieve the program goals, but that auctioning the EBS spectrum would generate nearly $11 billion, which could be used to compensate schools relinquishing the spectrum and to help fund ConnectED. “If this funding were spread over the five-year period envisioned for completion of the ConnectED initiative, it would provide approximately $2.18 billion in incentive auction compensation and additional E-rate funding yearly – nearly double the amount of annual funding that is currently allotted to the E-rate program.”

The white paper notes that the FCC already has authority to conduct an EBS incentive auction as the result of Congressional action in 2012. That’s when Congress passed a bill to enable the commission to conduct the upcoming incentive auction of TV broadcast spectrum.

According to Campbell, the FCC would need additional Congressional authorization to deposit the excess proceeds from an EBS incentive auction in the E-rate fund. He argues that “this authorization would require a relatively simple amendment to existing legislation and would be revenue neutral.”

Campbell also argues that Sprint and other wireless carriers would benefit from his proposal because assigning the EBS spectrum for purely commercial use and assigning the 2.5 GHz white spaces would enhance the value of existing commercial spectrum in the band. In addition, it would give the carriers the opportunity to acquire additional 2.5 GHz spectrum that would be free of educational obligations, he argues.

Sprint’s response
A Sprint spokesman was less than enthusiastic about the proposal, however. “Notwithstanding CBIT’s concerns for improving wireless broadband for schools and libraries, we must note that forcing licensees to sell their 2.5 GHz spectrum – apart from being legally dubious – wouldn’t come close to generating the revenue needed to sustainably support broadband access for America’s educational institutions,” the spokesman wrote in an email to Telecompetitor. “It is also surprising to see an advocacy group like CBIT recommend a public policy which fundamentally contradicts the free market principles it proclaims to support.”

The spokesman also noted that Sprint pledged to provide free wireless connectivity for 50,000 students over the next four years to support the ConnectED initiative. This commitment, he said, “is in addition to Sprint’s ongoing commitment to support the educational licensees. For example, each year Sprint provides approximately $24 million in cost-free wireless services and devices to thousands of elementary and secondary schools across the U.S.

“Sprint has an effective partnership with educational spectrum licensees that serves both educational goals and brings advance4d wireless broadband services to American consumers as intended by the FCC’s rules and policies.”