EBS portions of 2.5 GHz band headed for big update at FCC

Efforts have been underway for the licensing of currently unlicensed EBS spectrum. (Pixabay)

Longtime efforts to get something happening in the 2.5 GHz band—and not just by Sprint—appear to be heating up as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai plans to tackle midband spectrum this month.

The chairman wrote that significant portions of the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum in this band currently lie fallow across about one-half of the United States, mostly in rural areas. The FCC hasn’t granted new access to the entire 114 MHz of spectrum in this band for over 20 years.

“In other words, a scarce public resource that could be used to connect millions of Americans for a long time hasn’t been put to the best use, if it’s even been used at all,” he wrote. “At a time when we are seeking to lead the world in 5G and connect every American with digital opportunity, that’s not acceptable. We can’t afford to leave this large band of spectrum behind.”

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—Sprint isn’t the only one with 2.5 GHz aspirations

The FCC will vote at its May 10 meeting on a proposal to allow more efficient and effective use of the 2.5 GHz band. Pai said he’s proposing to provide greater flexibility to current EBS licensees to freely use and transfer their spectrum. “We would consider new opportunities for educational entities and Tribal Nations to gain access to this spectrum on a first-come, first-serve basis in places where they have a local presence and can best serve their communities,” he added. “And we would open up the remaining 2.5 GHz spectrum for auction to anyone, including commercial entities, on a flexible-use basis.”

Sprint, which has long boasted the value of its own licensed 2.5 GHz spectrum assets, said it supports the review of this spectrum.

“We fully support the FCC’s comprehensive review of proposals that would license pockets of 2.5 GHz Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum, particularly in rural areas, that has been frozen and unused for many years,” said Sprint spokeswoman Lisa Belot in a statement provided to FierceWirelessTech. “The public will greatly benefit from expanding spectrum opportunities for existing EBS licensees and potentially new EBS entrants. Adoption of new licensing opportunities for EBS licensees will further strengthen Sprint’s existing 4G LTE and future 5G deployments, benefitting customers as well as Sprint’s EBS partners. We look forward to reviewing the proposals in greater detail, working with the EBS community and the FCC on this long-awaited proceeding.”

There have been efforts underway for more than a year now to get the FCC to, at a minimum, put out a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to release more 2.5 GHz spectrum for licensing. In 2014, some of the major players, including the Wireless Communications Association, the National EBS Association and the Catholic Television Network, got together and submitted a proposal on how to license the spectrum. 

Sprint as recently as last month reiterated its support for their consensus plan (PDF). Specifically, Sprint emphasized the public interest benefits of expanding current EBS licensees to the county boundaries of their licensed footprint to allow for greater use of the unlicensed “white space” spectrum by both EBS licensees and commercial entities with whom they partner, including Sprint.

With more than 160 MHz of 2.5 GHz in the top 100 markets, Sprint is one of the only operators in the world with enough capacity to operate LTE and 5G simultaneously using Massive MIMO and huge channels of 100-200 MHz of licensed spectrum on the same radios, wrote Sprint CTO John Saw in a blog yesterday. Sprint’s Next-Gen Network build includes densifying the network by adding large volumes of 2.5 GHz small cells in every major market.  

Joe Madden, founder of Mobile Experts, yesterday told Wells Fargo analysts that he sees Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum portfolio as the “best spectrum possible for 5G.” By having such a “fat” channel of this spectrum (~160MHz/market), Sprint is the in the best position to benefit from such tools as Massive MIMO and build out a ubiquitous canopy layer in the 5G ecosystem. “While we saw this as a positive, Madden questions S’s ability to make the best use of this spectrum and seemed to imply this asset may be better used in others’ hands (cable was mentioned),” wrote the Wells Fargo analyst team of Jennifer Fritzsche in a note to investors.