Law360 (January 11, 2021, 2:10 PM EST) — The Federal Communications Commission has proposed fines totaling $47.5 million against nearly a dozen educational broadband providers, claiming that the companies primarily used their free spectrum licenses for profit instead of student services.
According to the FCC’s Thursday announcement, 10 license holders in the 2.5 GHz band “apparently failed to meet … fundamental obligations attached to their licenses,” including offering adequate educational programming and services to local communities.
Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who kick-started the investigation last year, called the proposed fines “an important step in the FCC’s work to hold licensees accountable for fulfilling the public-interest obligations that were an integral part of their authorizations.”
The 2.5 GHz band, also known as the Educational Broadcast Service, has long been reserved for educational institutions that use the band as part of their instructional offerings. However, many original licensees loaned their spectrum to commercial entities at a profit and appeared to have a record of flimsy compliance with program rules, according to Carr’s office.
The licensees now facing fines include the North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation and Voqal USA, which respectively face proposed fines of $8.2 million and $1.7 million.
In July, Carr specifically probed Voqal’s tax and financial history, questioning whether the company used its spectrum rights to further political causes.
Voqal pushed back on the enforcement action in a Thursday statement, saying the FCC’s findings “ignore our exemplary record, full compliance with all FCC requirements, and long-standing commitment to educational service.”
The company will be “responding in detail” to the FCC’s allegations, Voqal added.
The North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation similarly said it was “astonished” and “mystified” by the FCC’s fine assessment, especially given its track record of providing mobile hotspots to more than 1,000 schools in 46 states. The group also noted that the FCC chose to repeal the educational-use requirements it is accused of violating and now allows commercial providers to directly use the 2.5 GHz band.
“It is unfortunate the [FCC] commissioners … failed to acknowledge any educational benefits in the prior EBS regime — despite hundreds of examples and testimonials from schools, libraries, teachers, and numerous educational and public interest groups,” the group said in a statement. “The FCC] proposes outlandish penalties for alleged technical violations of vacated rules.”
Both FCC Democrats cast dissenting votes on the proposed fines. Commissioner Geoffrey Starks called the enforcement action “a waste of commission resources in an unlawful and unfair attack on a program [that] has helped people around the country.”
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel criticized the fines for unfairly targeting nonprofits that are doing their part to help people stay online amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Instead of taking these unreasonably punitive actions, we should be leading with our humanity and finding ways to connect more people to the broadband services they need in crisis,” she said.