WISPs and schools take a fresh look at 2.5 GHz spectrum

High schools are usually tall enough for antennas while elementary schools are often distributed evenly throughout a community, making a good layout for a network deployment. (Getty Images)

It’s been just over a year since the Federal Communications Commission dropped the educational use requirement for the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum, saying most licensees weren’t deploying the spectrum for its intended use. Now, with thousands of students facing the possibility of another semester outside the classroom, schools that hold spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band are reconsidering its value.

“We are engaged with several school districts that hold that spectrum who really didn’t know what they had, didn’t know what to do with it, who are now reassessing,” explained Scott Imhoff, SVP of product management at Cambium Networks, which supplies point-to-multipoint radio equipment for fixed wireless internet deployments. Imhoff said some schools with temporary point-to-multipoint solutions see that their 2.5 GHz spectrum might enable a more permanent solution. “We’ve got a number of school districts that are looking at longer-term solutions using that EBS spectrum,” he said.

RELATED: Critics blast FCC’s planned changes to EBS 2.5 GHz band, citing harm to education

Imhoff said schools are well-positioned to partner with wireless internet service providers (WISPs) to create private networks, because they already have fiber assets, internet points of presence and real estate. He noted that high schools are usually tall enough for antennas, while elementary schools are often distributed evenly throughout the community, so the school system as a whole can lend itself to a network deployment. Imhoff added that community ISPs are often willing to help schools in small towns create private networks or customized solutions.

Resound Networks

One WISP that is successfully partnering with schools is Resound Networks, which serves the Texas Panhandle, Western Oklahoma, and Eastern New Mexico. The company said it has seen a big spike in demand for service from schools that are trying to get classroom content to students learning from home. Often the first step in getting students content is getting them internet access. Resound uses point-to-multipoint radio equipment to extend internet service in rural areas, and when the pandemic hit, the company was inundated with requests for service. Resound raced to find community partners with fiber assets.

RELATED: CBRS enables private wireless networks for education

“Not only did we go after the school’s fiber, we went after any churches, or any type of fiber that would be willing to let us connect to their networks,” said Resound Networks COO Chadd Giles. “Once we identified the fiber then the RF planning started and then the deployments and we pulled in our tower crews and ordered equipment and started installing off of fiber circuits in these towns.”

Resound said many of the installations were meant to be temporary solutions to help cities and schools during the pandemic, but now schools see the value and want to keep the service. The 2.5 GHz EBS spectrum could give some schools a way to do that.

However, many schools don’t have enough EBS spectrum to create a private network, and getting more could be difficult. The FCC has said it doesn’t even plan to auction 2.5 GHz spectrum until 2021. Currently, the agency is giving Tribal Nations the chance to obtain licenses for unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum covering Tribal lands. The window of time for Tribal Nations to claim this spectrum closes September 2, 2020. The remaining unassigned spectrum is expected to be auctioned next year. School districts that want to bid will have to compete with the big carriers, so their chances of winning are low. 

Some schools may instead turn to Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which makes spectrum in the 3.5 - 3.7 GHz bands freely available to users as long as they do not interfere with incumbents or licensees. One Utah school district recently pivoted from EBS to CBRS as it works to develop a private LTE network.