The CITE, a blog published by the National Association of College Stores, takes a look at the intersection of education and technology, highlighting issues that range from course materials to learning delivery to the student experience. Comments, discussion, feedback, and ideas are welcome.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Public Ed Asset Used for Private Gain

At a time when the Census Bureau reports a quarter of U.S. households are without Internet access, critics contend that a federal program to shrink that gap is broken, with much of its revenues enriching nonprofits and commercial operators while many low-income and rural students are left still bereft of needed access.

The Educational Broadband Service (EBS) grants school districts and educational nonprofits free licenses allowing them to use a portion of spectrum—the range of frequencies that carry radio and the mobile Internet—to offer instructional services using low-power broadband and high-speed Internet access.

EBS traces its origins to a post-Sputnik push in the 1960s to modernize American education, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allotting a section of spectrum to encourage teaching by television. Since then, the government has given away thousands of licenses. When spectrum use officially shifted from TV to the Internet in 2004, the value of those licenses suddenly shot through the roof.

One observer told The Hechinger Report that “licensees got blindsided by a bunch of money,” with commercial operators offering cash payments running from tens of thousands of dollars up to millions to lease spectrum in a major metropolitan area. Many license-holders chose to lease up to 95% of their spectrum instead of using it for public purposes. It’s estimated that about 90% of the approximately 2,400 EBS licenses have been at least partially leased, many of them for 30 years.

The majority of EBS licensees have just one or two licenses, but over the years a handful of nonprofits have accumulated a national network of 50 or more spectrum licenses.

“Think about the amount of pure lease payments they receive for this public asset that they don’t own, which they’ve been given to steward,” said Zach Leverenz, founder of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit whose aim is to eliminate the digital divide.

While a fraction of those big nonprofits’ revenue from leased spectrum does support providing students, seniors, and other groups with broadband access, reviews of tax disclosures show that in at least one case, about three-quarters of those revenues were instead directed into savings and investments.

Leverenz has called for greater accountability and transparency for the program, but the FCC has demurred from making any changes, stating that the best course is to continue relying on “the good-faith efforts of EBS licensees.” 

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