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Fredericksburg City Public Schools wants to bridge the digital divide by broadcasting wireless internet

Fredericksburg City Public Schools wants to bridge the digital divide by broadcasting wireless internet


Fredericksburg City Public Schools has applied for a temporary license to broadcast wireless internet over available channels on the Educational Broadband Service—or EBS—spectrum, but the application is being opposed by T-Mobile.

Fourteen percent of Fredericksburg City’s public school population is without access to high-speed internet and with school being held virtually until at least October, this lack of connectivity has the potential to leave these 500 children academically behind.

While lack of infrastructure causes connectivity problems in neighboring rural counties, the problem in the city is economic, the school division believes.

Low-income families may be unable to afford an internet service provider or have had service turned off due to unpaid bills, said Michael George, the city school division’s technology supervisor. Families may also face challenges such as language barriers, immigration status or unclear or informal rental agreements.

George said the division’s ultimate goal is to be able to broadcast internet directly from school buildings.

In June, George applied to the Federal Communications Commission for an Emergency Special Temporary Authority to use unassigned channels on the EBS to provide internet to families in the city.

The EBS spectrum is a band of channels that the FCC originally made available to be licensed by educational organizations. In July 2019, the educational requirements for use were dropped. At that time, the FCC made the spectrum available for a window of time to tribal nations to claim so they can extend broadband service to their rural areas.

This priority window for tribal nations closes Sept. 2 and the FCC plans to make the unassigned channels available for commercial bidding soon after, according to its July 2019 ruling.

“School districts that want to bid will have to compete with the big carriers, so their chances of winning are low,” notes an Aug. 6 article about the EBS spectrum published in the online magazine Fierce Wireless.

George applied on June 8 for an Emergency Special Temporary Authority to use two specific unassigned EBS channels for 60 days to broadcast internet.

“These channels have never been assigned and are not currently scheduled to be auctioned for the duration of this request,” George wrote in the application. “Grant of an STA will help us quickly deploy and meet the unique connectivity needs of our community during the coronavirus pandemic. If granted this STA, Fredericksburg City Public Schools can have the system up and running within 16 days of notification of acceptance. The distributor has the equipment in stock and can have it shipped within five days of the STA being granted.”

The FCC granted temporary authority to use the spectrum to extend internet connectivity several times early in the pandemic, George said.

He said Albemarle County schools currently uses EBS spectrum to connect students.

George said T-Mobile obtained a copy of his STA application and during a phone call with the company’s technical team, he was told the team “did not find any reason to believe that we would interfere with their channels inside the City of Fredericksburg or surrounding areas.”

But on Aug. 6, the company filed an opposition to the city’s STA application, citing concern that “the FCPS request has the potential to cause interference to T-Mobile’s networks and would negatively impact T-Mobile’s efforts to provide service,” according to the opposition letter written by Steve Sharkey, vice president of government affairs for T-Mobile, USA.

T-Mobile claims the city’s use of the EBS spectrum would “run afoul” of the FCC’s plan to license the spectrum for 5G services.

“Given the stated purpose of the request, there is every reason to anticipate FCPS will make repeated renewal requests that ultimately overlap with—and then eclipse—the EBS auction contemplated by the FCC,” the letter states. “In fact, FCPS’s request seems more akin to a request for ongoing authority, which is problematic because it would create a reliance interest whereby the community is induced to depend upon FCPS for service.”

T-Mobile’s opposition also states that the city could use the Citizens Broadband Radio Service—or CBRS—a spectrum the FCC has designated for sharing between three tiers of users—the incumbent tier, which is reserved for the Navy and fixed satellite stations; the priority access license tier for those who purchase 10-year licenses; and the general authorized access tier, which users can access for free.

George said the CBRS spectrum is “far from ideal” for the school division’s purposes.

“Power levels are significantly lower than what is allowed on EBS frequencies, which in turn would require significantly more equipment to deploy at a much higher cost,” he said.

George said the CBRS spectrum would provide coverage limited to between 0.7 and 0.9 miles from the radio, which would not cover all parts of the city.

“Also, given our proximity to naval operations, there is a much greater risk that our system would not be given priority based on the service rules of CBRS,” he said.

George said he believes commercial carriers such as T-Mobile already own much of the spectrum and are poised to own even more when the FCC begins auctioning it off.

He said that if granted the license, the equipment necessary to broadcast over EBS is readily available and can be deployed quickly, and will also hold value after the 60-day period, so the school division can recoup the cost, “unlike personal hotspots or service provider vouchers, which we are also utilizing.”

George said he asked T-Mobile to work with the city to provide internet access to students after they reached out regarding the STA application.

“We have yet to have any commitment of assistance or had any additional contact with them after our technical meeting, other than the letter of opposition submitted to the FCC,” he said.

George said he is working on a response to T-Mobile’s claims to submit to the FCC soon.

Adele Uphaus–Conner:



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