FCC expands frequencies for wireless Internet

Thursday, November 13th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal regulators say they are expanding the radio spectrum for wireless Internet users to help bring broadband connections to rural areas, but consumer groups argue that the frequencies won't fulfill the promise.

The number of frequencies that wireless Internet devices can transmit on will increase sharply, Federal Communications Commission officials said Thursday as they announced the change.

``Wireless broadband is increasingly a reality in the marketplace,'' said FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

The Media Access Project said the new frequencies are not powerful enough to handle long-range broadband connections through lightly populated rural areas. Harold Feld, associate director of the watchdog group, said the frequencies instead will be used by ``WiFi'' providers, which allow users in a small area to access the Internet.

``This works great for short-range, low-power WiFi connections that don't need to go through walls or trees,'' said Feld, calling on the government instead to open up lower frequency bands for wireless providers.

The new frequencies are in the 5 gigahertz range on the radio spectrum, much higher than the frequencies used by commercial radio and television stations.

Ed Thomas, the FCC's chief engineer, said the agency also was looking at opening up lower frequencies for wireless Internet connections. But he said some companies providing high-speed connections to rural areas already use higher frequencies.

``There are a lot of wireless Internet providers using the additional spectrum we are making available,'' he said.

The FCC on Thursday also voted to make it easier for rural health care providers to tap into federal funds to subsidize Internet connections. FCC rules allow rural hospitals and other providers to obtain telecommunications services at the same price charged in urban areas, with the government picking up the difference. The high-speed connections allow rural hospitals to obtain diagnoses and other medical assistance from better-equipped medical facilities in more populated areas.

The problem, as the FCC saw it, is that rural health care providers have asked for only $14 million each of the last two years, a small percentage of the $400 million available for such services.

``This is a program we need to put to work,'' Commissioner Michael Copps said. ``We need to put it to work because rural America lags the rest of the country in access to premium health care, and we need to do it now more than ever because of the heightened threats of bioterrorism and health catastrophe that follow in the wake of 9/11.''

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