Public Broadcasters – Do You Hold an EBS License? It May Be Worth More Than You Think

Changes in FCC rules regarding the Educational Broadband Services (EBS) spectrum may affect the approximately 30 public broadcasters that own EBS licenses. If your station is one of these, learn how it may impact you and what you can do about it.

EBS has its roots in the 1960s when FCC dedicated a portion of spectrum for educational purposes. Public TV stations and other nonprofit entities with educational missions were awarded EBS licenses and were subsequently allowed to lease excess capacity to commercial services. EBS licenses were generally assigned to a protected service area roughly 35 miles in radius. These eligibility and coverage restrictions left large national coverage gaps, or “white areas,” which were not assigned to any EBS licensee.

In 2019, the FCC adopted new rules governing EBS spectrum. These rules, which took effect on April 27, 2020, eliminate prior restrictions on eligibility and offer current licensees new freedom to sell their licenses or lease underlying spectrum. Since the rules were adopted, Public Media Company has seen increased activity seeking FCC approval to sell EBS licenses or to lease (or modify existing leases) foe EBS spectrum. The increased value of the spectrum is largely attributable to the fact that EBS uses the same 2.5 GHz band of spectrum that can be used to provide new 5G wireless services.

The main purpose of the new rules is to open up unused spectrum for 5G service. Before that happens, however, the FCC will accept applications by eligible entities, including current EBS licenses, to expand to “overlay” areas, that is, adjacent white areas not currently part of the licensee’s protected service area. Competing applications will be resolved by an Overlay Auction. We expect the Overlay Auction sometime in 2021. After the Overlap Auction, the unlicensed spectrum previously reserved for EBS will be opened up to commercial operators.

While the new rules do not affect existing leases or other contractual agreements, you should review EBS lease agreements to determine whether you can renegotiate the terms or sell the license. If you hold an EBS license without a lease agreement or have a lease agreement that is coming to an end soon, this is a good opportunity to explore new options

We have found that the value of existing long-term lease agreements may significantly undervalue the current value of the spectrum. We can assist you with an analysis of the value you are getting under your old lease versus the current value of your spectrum, and help you consider a new lease, renegotiate the terms of an existing lease, or sell the license.

For more information, email Evran Kavlak.

Public Media Company Board member and FCC attorney John Crigler contributed to this article.