(Adds more details)
By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON, July 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday voted 3-2 to auction a key band of underused 2.5 GHz spectrum to help advance next-generation 5G wireless networks and scrap requirements that it be used for education.
The mid-band spectrum was reserved in the 1960s for what is now known as the Educational Broadband Service. Sprint Corp uses leased spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band in its existing 4G network and 5G network that it is being rolled out.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the commission was taking "a major step toward freeing up critical mid-band spectrum for 5G. At long last, we remove the burdensome restrictions on this band, allowing incumbents greater flexibility in their use of the spectrum and introduce a spectrum auction that will ensure that this public resource is finally devoted to its highest-valued use."
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the Republican majority was collapsing "this spectrum into an overlay auction system that structurally advantages a single nationwide carrier."
She added the "order turns its back on the schools and educational institutions that have made the 2.5 GHz band their home since 1962... and reverts to uninspired and stale commercial spectrum policy."
Pai said last year the FCC was seeking to ensure that existing users would retain spectrum, give some entities a chance to obtain new licenses "and then auctioning off the remaining white spaces."
Sprint's spectrum is a key part of Sprint and T-Mobile US Inc's proposed $26 billion tie-up and 5G plan.
The U.S. Education Department in a June 7 letter told the FCC it should maintain an "educational use requirement" for that spectrum and suggested setting aside revenue from license sales to help students who lack the internet access required to do their homework.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the order "frees the spectrum from the misguided choices of FCCs past" and relies on "market forces" to "quickly and fully rationalize the spectrum for 5G. This means mid-band for 5G today."
The U.S. Education Department in a June 7 letter told the FCC it should maintain an "educational use requirement" for that spectrum and suggested setting aside revenue from license sales to help students who lack internet access required to complete homework.
The FCC also voted Wednesday to establish procedures for forthcoming auctions of high-band spectrum, which it said would be the largest-ever U.S. spectrum auction. Bidding is set to start in December. (Reporting by David Shepardson Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Susan Thomas)