FCC Seeks More Spectrum for Wireless

By Roy Mark

December 12, 2002

Agency proposes rule to allow unlicensed wireless devices, including Wi-Fi networks, to share space with TV broadcast spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continued its push to free more spectrum for unlicensed wireless use Wednesday afternoon by seeking public comment on a proposed rule permitting unlicensed transmitters to operate in additional frequency bands.

Calling current rules that allow unlicensed transmitters to operate on frequencies shared with licensed services a "tremendous success," the commissioners pointed to the wide variety of devices that have been developed and introduced under those rules including cordless telephones, home security systems, electronic toys, anti-pilfering and inventory control systems and computer wireless local area networks.

"Technological advances now allow 'smart' low power devices to communicate in spectral open spaces that were previously closed to development," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said. "These technological advances are great news for the American people. Our goal in today's item is to allow for the more efficient and comprehensive use of the spectrum resource while not interfering with existing services."

Wednesday's FCC action seeks comments on the feasibility of allowing unlicensed devices to operate in the television broadcast spectrum when spectrum is not being used. It also seeks comment on the feasibility of permitting unlicensed devices to operate in other bands, such as the 3650-3700 MHz band, at power levels higher than other unlicensed transmitters with only the minimal technical requirements necessary to prevent interference to licensed services.

The Commission noted advances in computer technology making it possible to design equipment that could monitor the spectrum to detect frequencies already in use and ensure that transmissions only occur on open frequencies. The low cost of GPS equipment could allow a device to determine its location and use information from a database to determine whether there are any licensed operations in its vicinity. According to FCC, equipment can be designed that is "frequency agile," with the capability of changing frequency as needed to avoid interference to licensed users.

The proposed rule, which could take more than a year to implement if eventually passed by the FCC, could prove to be a boom for wireless networks. Known as Wi-Fi or 802.11, wireless networks provide connectivity up to approximately 300 feet and are considered ideal for home and office use. In the last year, the popularity of these networks has shown strong growth and, in turn, demand for spectrum space for the networks has increased.

Just last week, tech bellwethers AT&T , Intel and IBM pooled their resources behind a new company that will offer wholesale nationwide wireless Internet access. The company, Cometa Networks -- backed by investment concerns Apax Partners and 3i -- will leverage its backers' technology to sell services to telcos, ISPs, cable operators and wireless carriers, which will then be able to offer their customers broadband wireless Internet access.

"I believe the power of unlicensed spectrum services -- and the corresponding rise in consumer welfare -- is one of the great success stories of U.S. telecommunications policy. Unlicensed devices have rapidly become commonplace in the American home and office; they are relied upon for many everyday functions in consumers' lives," said Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy. "We are striving to promote two important interests: ensuring that incumbents are protected from harmful interference and allowing innovative technologies to take advantage of unused spectrum."

Commissioner Kevin Martin, while saying he strongly supported making more spectrum available for unlicensed devices, said "I am concerned that opening this inquiry into the TV broadcast bands at this time may create additional uncertainty and potentially delay the digital transition."

Martin said he feared allowing unlicensed devices to operate in the television spectrum would create additional interference problems.

"For example, we are currently adjudicating a claim that a digital station in Norfolk, Virginia is causing interference to an analog station in Salisbury, Maryland. This claim has been pending since June 11, 2002, and is an example of how interference can create significant problems that need to be resolved," Martin said. "At the same time, difficulties have surfaced for the existing unlicensed devices operating in the broadcast bands. Wireless microphone users, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to find available spectrum."

Martin also questioned the timing of the FCC's newest spectrum initiative, questioning why the rule was being proposed before the FCC had received any comment from the agency's Spectrum Policy Task Force report released last month.

"If the Task Force Report was unnecessary for this item, the Commission could have released this item months ago, instead of delaying action for the Task Force to write its report," Martin said. "If, on the other hand, the Task Force's work was instrumental to this item, it would make more sense to wait for comment on the report before proceeding. Either way, after we have waited for the Task Force to finish its report, it seems odd not to wait an additional month for the initial comments on the report."

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