EBS Industry Players Push For Expanded GSAs, New Filing Windows

Proposal would eliminate coverage holes, inefficiencies in existing coverage design.

Take a look at a map of the service areas assigned to licensees in the Educational Broadband Service (EBS). You might expect to see a coherent pattern of similar coverage areas effectively blanketing, in the aggregate, entire states (perhaps even with particular stations’ contours coterminous with state boundaries). You’d be disappointed. What you’ll see instead is a crazy quilt of circles, trapezoids, crescents, half-moons, triangles – shapes differing from channel to channel.   And beyond that, there are multiple areas that don’t happen to sit within any EBS station’s coverage.

But change may be on the way, if a group of EBS licensees has anything to say about it.

The group, led by the National Educational Broadband Service Association (NEBSA), has presented the FCC with a “Joint Industry Proposal” (the Proposal) looking to expand existing EBS service areas, called Geographic Service Areas (GSAs), so they’ll be coterminous with the county boundaries touched by the edges of the GSAs. And, perhaps more importantly, the Proposal includes a three-stage approach to licensing all the EBS spectrum that has lain fallow for years.

The EBS, of course, is a wireless service used both to provide wireless services to educators and, on an ancillary basis, to provide commercial wireless services. EBS licensees, themselves noncommercial entities, often lease their excess channel capacity to unaffiliated wireless operators who provide the commercial services. (Most prominent commercial provider: Clearwire.) 

The oddly-shaped EBS service contours contrast sharply with the service areas assigned to commercial wireless services, which are amalgamations of counties or the jurisdictional equivalent (e.g., the parish in Louisiana), configured to cover the entire county or other political unit. Look at a state map showing cellular service areas and you’ll see those areas effectively blanket the state, with particular cellular license areas coterminous with county boundaries.  Since commercial wireless operators are used to covering entire areas (and not oddly-shaped bits and pieces), the haphazard and disorderly arrangement of the EBS service makes the building and operation of a competitive wireless system on the foundation of EBS channels a challenge.

How did the EBS service areas get the way they are? 

The current haphazard GSA configuration is the result of the evolution of EBS spectrum regulation over its 50-year history.  

When EBS was first authorized in the 1960s (original name: “Instructional Television Fixed Service”, or ITFS), it featured no GSAs or other protected service areas. It was a point-to-point or point-to-multipoint service for the transmission of educational programming from a single transmitter site to specialized receivers at schools. The only protection afforded by the FCC was to each of the discrete receive sites, not to any broader area. As a result, two or more co-channel stations often were authorized to operate at distances as close as five miles from each other. 

In the 1980s, the FCC relaxed its rules to permit ITFS licensees to use their “excess channel capacity” for uses other than the transmission of educational programming – and thus was born the wireless cable industry. By the early 1990s, the FCC was affording a protected service area to ITFS licensees who leased excess capacity to wireless cable entities. Initially, the protection extended for a 15-mile radius from the station’s transmitter site. 

By the mid-1990s, the FCC had given all of these licensees a 35-mile radius protected service area. But recall that, as originally authorized, ITFS stations were often near each other. As a result of the gradual expansion of protection, it became common for the protected 35-mile service areas of co-channel stations to overlap. 

In 2005, the FCC fundamentally changed the use of this spectrum. ITFS became EBS. Under the new rules, licensees could use their spectrum for any lawful purpose, including cell phone services and wireless broadband. EBS had evolved from a one-way television service to a two-way wireless service.

That evolution necessitated a new approach to protection. Introducing the GSA.

Instead of restricting each ITFS-now-EBS licensee to specific, license-designated transmitter sites, the new rules accommodated mobile uses by allowing licensees to establish multiple transmitter sites anywhere within each station’s GSA, an area corresponding generally to the station’s 35-mile protected service area. The additional transmission facilities are subject to certain antenna height and transmitter power restrictions designed to protect co-channel operations by other licensees in areas outside the GSA. As is the case with all other commercial wireless services, these multiple transmitter sites – or cell sites – can be constructed, operated and moved within the GSA without any separate FCC authorization. 

The FCC recognized in 2005 that wireless service channels can’t share GSAs in whole or in part. But the service areas of many co-channel stations already overlapped. To resolve this problem, the Commission assigned the overlap service areas – “football”-shaped areas formed by the overlap of the two circular protected service areas – to one or the other of the overlapping licensees in Solomon-like fashion. The FCC drew a line through the “football”-shaped overlap area and gave each licensee the portion on its side of the “football.” The result: irregular service areas – some vaguely resembling cookies which have been bitten into, some even less recognizable.

Because it was essentially a retrofit designed to accommodate the distribution of ITFS-now-EBS facilities that had evolved over the decades, the GSA approach left not only irregular service areas but also gaps, i.e., areas not covered by any service.

The Joint Industry Proposal to the rescue

As noted above, the haphazard and disorderly arrangement of the EBS service complicates its use as part of a competitive wireless system. Enter NEBSA and its cohorts. Their Proposal would not only impose order on the semi-chaotic EBS service area design that has gradually evolved, but also provide a roadmap for the licensing of all currently unused spectrum that remains eligible for EBS licensing.

Expanded GSAsWith respect to existing services areas, the Proposal calls on the FCC to expand all existing EBS service areas to be coterminous with the county boundaries touched by the edges of the GSAs. Thus, if a channel’s GSA is wholly contained within a single county, the GSA would expand outward to cover the remainder of the county, and the GSA would become the county. As another example, if a channel’s GSA (a) were centered at the intersection of four square counties and (b) extended into but not beyond each of those counties, then the GSA of that channel would become the entirety of these four counties. 

EBS licenses ordinarily authorize the use of a group of four channels. The proposed GSA expansion would be done on a channel-by-channel basis, rather than on a group basis. That’s because the channels within a licensee’s group often have different GSAs, and the expansion of any one channel to the edge of a partially covered county might be blocked by a co-channel station that also covers a part of that county; at the same time, though, another channel from the group might not experience that blockage. In the event that the GSA of one licensee’s channel covered a part of a county and the GSA of another licensee’s co-channel station covered another part of that same county, the two licensees would split that county. These proposed expansions of existing GSAs would occur automatically by action of the FCC upon release of a public notice announcing the expansions – no applications or notices of participation would be required.

Additional filing opportunities. After the GSA expansion announcement is released, the Proposal calls on the FCC to initiate a three-stage process for opening up all remaining EBS spectrum to applications. This would be the first such opportunity in more than 13 years.

Before inviting any applications, the Commission would first publish a spreadsheet “identifying, on a channel-by-channel basis, the specific states and counties where EBS spectrum is available for application.” The spreadsheet would be provided by NEBSA and others. 

With the release of the spreadsheet, the FCC would announce Stage One of the application process, a “one-day, first come, first served filing window” limited to applications by Native American Tribal Entities proposing GSAs that fall within the geographic boundaries of their Tribal Lands. The GSA of each proposed station (and thus, the geographic area of the Tribal Lands in question) would have to be at least 1,924 square miles and “not occupy areas covered by licensed GSAs on the channel group proposed.” The Commission would grant an EBS license for one channel group within each Tribal Land.

Once the Stage One applications have been processed and, where appropriate, granted, the Commission would announce Stage Two, a second “one-day, first come first served filing window” during which any EBS eligible applicant (including Tribal Entities) would be permitted to file up to seven applications for any remaining available EBS spectrum. (The seven-application limit would apply to each applicant and all attributable parties to that applicant.) Applications would be filed on a county-by-county and channel-group-by-channel-group basis; applicants would be permitted to file for more than one channel group in any given county, but only one channel group per county would be licensed to any applicant during Stage Two. The spectrum up for grabs would include EBS spectrum remaining in any county that is partially covered by a Tribal Land EBS license on an overlay basis, protecting the boundaries of the Tribal Land EBS license.  

Stage Three would kick in after Stage Two is wrapped up. The FCC would release a Public Notice that would (a) list the Stage Two licenses granted and (b) announce the date for commencement of a “first come, first served rolling filing window” for any remaining EBS spectrum by any EBS eligible entity. During the rolling filing window, there would be no limit on the number of applications a single entity could file. Applications would be filed county-by county and channel-group-by-channel-group. 

Under the Proposal, during each Stage the first-filed application acceptable for filing for a particular channel group in a particular county would be granted. Subsequent applications would be cut-off and dismissed. Precisely how this automatic cut-off process would work in the context of the one-day-only filing windows contemplated for Stages One and Two is not clear. In other services, two applications filed on the same day are deemed to have been filed simultaneously and, thus, both are entitled to comparative consideration. That system would seem not to work where the filing window is itself only one day long. Whether the Commission could (as a practical matter) and/or would be willing to (as a policy matter) adopt an absolute first-one-in-the-door-wins approach – in which an applicant filed at, say, 12:01 a.m. would prevail over one filed at 12:06 a.m. – remains to be seen.

Wrap-up

If the Proposal were adopted, holes in EBS service area coverage would be eliminated and greater efficiency would be introduced into the use of EBS – both obviously desirable goals.

The Proposal was filed in an ex parte filing in WT Docket No. 03-66. It is expected that the FCC will ask for comments on the proposal. If, after considering the Proposal and any comments that get filed, the FCC staff likes the whole or parts of the Proposal, the next step would be a notice of proposed rulemaking in which rules are proposed and issues are presented for comment. These processes are not rapid. Even in a best-case scenario we wouldn’t expect the Proposal to be adopted in whole or part in FCC rules for a least a couple of years.

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