The Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) is a band of 20 microwave channels available to be licensed by the FCC to local credit granting educational institutions.
It was designed to serve as a means for educational institutions to deliver live or pre-recorded video instruction to multiple sites within school districts and to higher education branch campuses. In recognition of the variety and quantity of materials required to support instruction at numerous grade levels and in a range of subjects, licensees were typically granted a group of four channels. Its low capital and operating costs as compared to broadcast television, technical quality that compared favorably with broadcast television, and its multi-channel per licensees feature made ITFS an extremely cost effective vehicle for the delivery of educational materials. There are currently several hundred ITFS systems in operation delivering schedules of live and pre-recorded instruction
The FCC initially authorized ITFS to operate using a one-way, analog, line-of-sight technology. Typical installations included up to four transmitters multiplexed through a single broadcast antenna with directional receive antennas at each receive site. Receive site installations included equipment to down convert the microwave channels for viewing on standard television receivers. In typical installations, the down converted ITFS signals were distributed to classrooms over multi-channel closed circuit television systems.
In the late 1980’s the FCC recognized that many ITFS licensees lacked the technical expertise and/or the financial means to make effective use of ITFS. Subsequently, the FCC authorized ITFS licensees to lease a portion of their spectrum, designated as “Excess Capacity," for commercial use. ITFS licensees were required to retain forty hours per week per channel for instruction with the excess available for commercial use in exchange for technical and financial support for their instructional service. Using ITFS excess capacity and up to 13 channels in the companion commercial service, the Multi-Multipoint Distribution Service (MMDS), a number of telecommunications companies built wireless cable systems. The number of available channels, however, proved to be insufficient to compete effectively with the expanding channel capacity of cable TV.
ITFS and MMDS licensees then sought FCC authorization to employ digital compression technology, which would substantively increase the number of program streams that could be carried on the channels of the combined ITFS and MMDS spectrum.
In 1998, the FCC approved the use of digital compression in ITFS. At the time digital compression technology was expected to expand the number of program steams by a ratio of 4 to 1 or more. The FCC also authorized both cellular and two-way operations in the ITFS/MMDS services and the potential for ITFS to be used for the distribution of data, as well as video. In the same rule, the FCC reduced the capacity that educational licensees were required to retain for instruction from forty hours per week per channel to 5% of channel capacity. In permitting two-way operations the FCC created the first potential for a substantial use of instructional materials that rely on interaction between the instructional program and learners.
The expanded programming capacity provided by digital compression encouraged a number of commercial entities to create wireless entertainment video systems. These systems found, however, that the additional programming capability was not sufficient to overcome the line-of-sight handicap and the associated higher cost for customer installations. It was clear that while video distribution was a viable educational service for ITFS, commercial video services could not be widely successful in the ITFS/MMDS spectrum.
In 1999, telecommunication interests associated with the cell phone industry sought to obtain FCC approval for the transfer of portions of the ITFS spectrum from educational use to support a proposed 3G (Third Generation) cell phone technology. In 2001, the FCC ruled to preserve the ITFS spectrum for education and further modified the rules to authorize the use of the spectrum in mobile operations and voice communications.
These changes in rule and the rising demand for broadband communications led to several commercial tests of combined ITFS/MMDS digital systems designed for two-way data distribution. It was believed that these wireless systems could provide a high-speed data connection that would compete effectively with DSL and cable modem services in providing access to the internet. Such systems would also have the capacity to distribute video and voice in the form of data. These tests were, subsequently, halted as it became apparent that the existing technology and cost structures could not sustain commercial operations.
During the same period a new technology, Non-line of sight (NLOS), was in development and being tested by a number of technology companies. NLOS showed promise of overcoming the obstacles of line-of-sight and high customer installation costs that had handicapped ITFS/MMDS operations. That improvement, however, was not judged to be sufficient to insure that a combined ITFS/MMDS digital service could satisfy the needs of education, as well as providing technology sufficiently robust to be commercially viable. Therefore, in 2003 the National ITFS Association, the Catholic Television Network, and the Wireless Communications Association filed a joint proposal with the FCC to reformat the ITFS/MMDS spectrum and to provide rules, which would support widespread development of a wireless broadband service in the ITFS/MMDS spectrum.
To transition from instructional video programming to online delivery platforms, and to meet the need for additional wireless broadband spectrum, the FCC in 2005 replaced the old ITFS video-centric band plan and technical and operational rules with a new EBS band plan and technical and operational rules intended to encourage the spectrum to be used for wireless data transmissions.
EBS stations were required to be “transitioned” from ITFS operations to EBS operations by October 10, 2010. During the transition from ITFS to EBS, the FCC allowed stations to be taken off the air. Following the transition, by November 1, 2011, all EBS stations were required to demonstrate that they were operating under the new EBS rules and providing “substantial service.”