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EBS: Use It or Lose It

There may be idle wireless spectrum on your campus that could be utilized for broadband.

Perhaps, like Northern Michigan University, you have a lot of commuter students who need affordable internet service. And just maybe your institution has licensed wireless spectrum sitting idle. You could, like NMU, turn that unused spectrum into a broadband network that benefits not only your students, but the surrounding community.

This is not some pie-in-the-sky idea. The Educational Broadband Service (EBS), formerly known as the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), is a licensed wireless service in the 2.5 GHz frequency range that was originally intended for over-the-air broadcasting of campus-produced instructional television programs. Each EBS licensee is assigned a specific geographic service area, typically up to a 35-mile radius. Many US colleges and universities were granted ITFS licenses years ago, and most have never used them.

The FCC’s recent revamping of the EBS spectrum now makes it possible for EBS licensees to use a variety of fixed, portable, and mobile services relating to education and instruction. Significantly, these services include providing students with high-speed internet access.

Because spectrum is a very limited commodity, the FCC is working to ensure that licensed stations are actually in use. EBS licensees must demonstrate “significant use” of licensed spectrum by May 2011 or the FCC will reclaim that spectrum for other uses. You have two feasible options for turning this spectrum over to broadband: Your campus can build its own broadband wireless system, or you can lease your spectrum (or portions of it) to commercial carriers, who would then provide broadband wireless service (with the stipulation that they meet educational programming requirements laid out in FCC rules). The latter choice can present a potential source of revenue for a campus.

Conducting a License Search

Amazingly, all too often campus and IT leaders aren’t even aware if an EBS license exists for their campus. One way to find out is to check with folks who are likely to have some knowledge on the topic, such as the staff members who do instructional television on campus, or your facilities/buildings and grounds department. The former group might have actually utilized the ITFS service, and the latter often tracks FCC licenses for other campus-owned systems and may do so for the ITFS/EBS license as well.

If these sources don’t have the EBS information, you can conduct a search of the FCC license database at Click on “License Search” in the left-hand navigation bar, then “Advanced Licensed Search.”

In the advanced license search, you may need to be a bit careful about the criteria you enter, as the data may be stored in ways you wouldn’t consider. Your best bet may be to keep the search as wide as possible by following these two steps: 1) Under “Call Sign & Radio Services,” ignore the “Call Sign and Service Group” parameters, and instead select “Match only the following radio service.” Then choose “ED” from the scrollable list. 2) Under “Licensee,” enter only your city and state (be aware the results will show the mailing addresses of licensees, which may not correspond to transmit locations).

These two search parameters should be broad enough to find any EBS license holders in your area, regardless of their current status. For example, a search on Madison, WI, pulls up 36 active EBS licenses, including two licensed to Madison Area Technical College and one to the University of Wisconsin system.

The Leasing Option

Once you’ve confirmed that your institution has an EBS license, you can determine your best course of action. As the FCC’s deadline is not far off, leasing may now be the most feasible option. Universities such as George Mason University (VA), the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Wayne State University (MI) have taken the leasing route.

The EBS 2.5 GHz spectrum is in the same frequency band as BRS (Broadband Radio Service), the FCC’s name for commercial/for-profit broadband wireless service. Several carriers, most notably Clearwire, have spent huge sums acquiring BRS licenses all over the US, and at the same time have been leasing EBS licenses from educational institutions. If your university has already leased its license to someone, that someone is likely to be Clearwire.

But if your license is still unused, Clearwire may be the first company you want to talk with about potentially leasing your spectrum. George Mason, for example, has licensed 75 percent of its EBS spectrum to Clearwire, with the aim of having WiMAX broadband provided to GMU commuter students (among others) in its Washington, DC, service area.

Build It Yourself

What if your campus is interested in using its spectrum to build its own broadband network? Which 4G technology should you be considering? CT’s October 2009 article “Next-Gen Wireless Trends” ( articles/2009/10/01/networking.aspx) discussed the battle between WiMAX and LTE. Since then, LTE has made significant headway with carriers. However, WiMAX got off to the earlier start and, because the equipment has been readily available, WiMAX technology has been selected by many universities that are building their own broadband networks.

Which leads us back to Northern Michigan University. In August 2009, the university launched a production WiMAX broadband network utilizing the university’s licensed EBS frequency. It has become one of the largest noncommercial WiMAX networks in the country—about 30 miles across—using four base stations (in contrast to the roughly 1,000 WiFi access points that would be needed to cover that same geographic area). Students living both on and off campus now can access the internet and campus network resources at no additional cost (it’s included in their tuition/fees).

Several other universities are in various stages of WiMAX pilot projects, including the University of Wisconsin and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, both of which are also using existing EBS licenses.

So if you’re not already aware of your campus’ EBS status, check it out. Whether you license the unused spectrum to a broadband operator for some extra revenue or build the network yourself, this is a golden opportunity that might make you—in these budget-challenged times—a local hero on your campus.


EBS license search:
FCC EBS spectrum leasing requirements:
WiMAX university pilots:

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