The History of the Instructional Television Fixed Service
Established by the FCC in 1963, Instructional Television Fixed Service ("ITFS") licensees were authorized to transmit television programming in the 2500 to 2690 megahertz (or 2.5 gigahertz) microwave range of the electromagnetic spectrum. At that time, the use of ITFS channels was restricted to transmission of instructional material to accredited public and private schools, colleges, and universities for the formal education of students enrolled in courses for academic credit. ITFS has approximately 1,275 entities holding over 2,175 licenses with over 70,000 registered receive sites.
Historically, this area of the electromagnetic spectrum has been underutilized. In 1983, in an effort to encourage more intensive use of the broadcast spectrum reserved for education use and to help ITFS licensees generate revenue needed to provide instructional services, the FCC began to relax use restrictions on ITFS licensees to permit leases of up to 75% of the “excess” (unused) capacity on their channels to commercial wireless operators. The ITFS/MDS band plan was initially devised to transmit either one-way video service to students, in the case of an educational institution, and subscription television service, in the case of a wireless cable operator.
However, the widespread use of ITFS appears to have never panned out, possibly because satellite subscription television was preferred by consumers over wireless cable. As a consequence, many of the wireless operators who leased ITFS spectrum became insolvent and could not construct and operate their planned services. These defunct businesses were eventually acquired by major telecommunications companies, such as Sprint Corporation, Nextel Communications, Inc., and Clearwire Corporation.
Thereafter, the FCC continued to increase the technical flexibility afforded to ITFS licensees by allowing them, for example, to channel load all of their ITFS programming on to one of its four channels and lease the remaining three channels on a twenty-four-hour basis to a wireless cable television operator. Between 1996 and 2001, the FCC (i) permitted ITFS licensees to employ digital technologies, (ii) expanded the existing allocation for one-way video service to allow ITFS licensees to construct digital two-way systems capable of providing high-speed, high-capacity broadband service, including Internet access service via cellular communication networks, and (iii) finally added a mobile allocation to this band of the spectrum to make it potentially available for advanced mobile wireless services, including future generations of advanced wireless technologies.
In the fall of 2002, a coalition including the Wireless Communications Association International, the National ITFS Association, and the Catholic Television Network asked the FCC to fundamentally change the ITFS structure. The FCC responded by restructuring the 2500-2690 MHz band into three separate portions (lower, middle and upper bands) and in so doing, provided incentives for the development of low-power cellular broadband use, while preserving the capability for high power (non-cellular) operations in the middle band. However, the restructuring meant that incumbent licensees generally would be required to move their existing frequencies to a new band plan that replaced the interleaved channels of ITFS through a process called "Transition" under the FCC's regulations.
In order to facilitate the Transition, the FCC adopted a market-oriented, transition mechanism in 2004 that enabled incumbent licensees to develop regional plans for moving to new spectrum assignments in the restructured band plan. Under the new rules, the Transition for any given area (a Basic Trading Area, or BTA) will be planned, initiated and coordinated by a “proponent” who will also be responsible, at its cost, to relocate EBS video operations to the MBS [Middle Band Spectrum] and to replace all down converters at EBS receive sites. It is likely that proponents will be commercial wireless broadband operators.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the FCC's 2004 order permitted holders of EBS channels to lease up to 95 percent of their excess capacity for advanced wireless services, such as wireless broadband access to the Internet.