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Sprint Nextel vs. 41 non-profits: Corporate bullying or good network citizenship?

Here's an interesting story about a David vs. Goliath dispute over wireless spectrum - interesting in part because it isn't at all clear that we should be rooting for David.

The issue involves the 2495 MHz to 2690 MHz band, better known as home of the Educational Broadband Service (EBS). In a nutshell: Sprint Nextel has unleashed the legal hounds in an effort to get the FCC to stop accommodating, or, depending on your point of view, mollycoddling, 41 school districts and other non-profit organizations that have failed to renew their EBS spectrum licenses before they expired. The FCC has made a practice of granting unofficial grace periods to such organizations, in some cases multiple times and even after the spectrum has been reassigned to another non-profit.

The online publication eSchool News has a genuinely fair and balanced account of the dispute, although it's a 1,700-word read and you need to register to get beyond the first third. So, we'll provide the CliffsNotes version here:

Now, admit it, you're already suspecting that Sprint Nextel simply wants to grab the expired spectrum licenses for its own purposes, because, well, that's the type of behavior we've come to expect from corporations. However, the carrier insists that's not the case - going so far as to say, "There is absolutely no scenario under which [Sprint] could directly own any portion of EBS spectrum," and offers a relatively compelling argument that it is simply trying to ensure the rights of those organizations that buy lapsed licenses so that the EBS works as it supposed to work.

Which isn't to say that Sprint doesn't have a tangible stake in the matter.

From the eSchool News article:

Sprint argues that allowing schools and other nonprofit license-holders to let their licenses lapse without threat of forfeiture sets a legal precedent that could impede the right of legitimate license-holders to use the spectrum effectively, but (critics) say the company's aggressive tactics are insensitive and fail to take into account the difficult circumstances under which educational institutions - particularly rural schools - operate.

Anyone who knows anything about how schools operate can understand the point that keeping track of wireless spectrum license-renewal requirements is the type of task that might fall through the cracks/gaping crevices.

On the other hand, as the story notes, the FCC isn't generally disposed toward cutting license holders slack on technicalities. And, if you ask me, the insistence of the tardy license-holders that they be granted special dispensation smacks of excuse-making, if not "the dog ate my homework." In some instances, school systems whose licenses have been lapsed for years have tried the appeal approach.

Why does the spectrum matter so much to these organizations? It's not simply because of the wireless services they enable, but the revenue they generate: FCC rules allow license holders to lease unused portions of their allotments, a bonus that some organizations have exploited to generate earn extra dollars they say are important to making ends meet.

Sprint Nextel is among those leasing spectrum this way, so it does have cause to press this point that goes beyond simple concern for fairness and efficiency.

Perhaps there's a compromise solution available. Perhaps the FCC could consider ditching its unofficial and undefined grace period for an official one - say a month - after which lapsed licensees will be simply out of luck.

And if the tardy schools still complain, just tell them that an extra month is a far sight more generous than most students can expect from most teachers.