PENTAGON fights to keep its airwaves as wireless industry expands


Wednesday, August 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon is facing a homegrown adversary: a communications industry that wants a slice of the military's airwaves for new products for gadget-happy consumers.

Parents want to keep tabs on children by cell phone. People want their e-mail wherever they go. Wayward drivers want satellite-linked maps to find their way home.

Those don't sound like military problems, but the products need airwaves. And the Pentagon is having to play defense to hang on to a piece of the sky coveted by the communications industry, even as its own spectrum needs keep growing.

``In Kosovo, we had one-tenth the number of people that we did in the Gulf War, and we used 100 times the bandwidth,'' Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a House committee.

Airwaves are crucial in the latest high-tech war scenarios, which rely on machines over manpower to win battles with few casualties. The Pentagon uses the airwaves to communicate with more than $100 billion worth of defense and intelligence satellites and to guide precision weapons to their targets, among other things. Airwaves also would be key to a planned missile defense system.

But the wireless industry has its eye on the same bandwidth, and the industry and its supporters in Washington say the Pentagon should sell access.

Only then, they argue, can the new generation of mobile communications come fully into its own, bringing ``the Internet as we know it today to your nearest wireless device,'' in the words of Travis Larson of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

But there is plenty of resistance to the idea of sharing the Defense Department's bandwidth.

``The explosion of wireless technologies threatens to push military equipment off prime radio frequencies just as we're spending billions to link our forces on the digital battlefield,'' says Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

Defense officials say that sharing the space would create interference. Also that it would take a decade or longer and cost billions to send up new satellites and otherwise accommodate mobile consumer communications.

Former President Clinton directed federal agencies in October to determine whether existing government and commercial users could be relocated from their current frequencies to take care of the new wireless needs.

No decisions have been reached, partly because of Pentagon resistance.

And a congressionally set September 2002 deadline for an auction of new bandwidth licenses for wireless services might be delayed. The Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department _ which oversee commercial and federal use of the airwaves, respectively _ missed a July deadline for determining where the space will come from.

Meanwhile, an international organization is working to designate the same slices of airwaves around the globe for wireless services, enabling people to travel anywhere and get the same services they have at home. One band the group has selected for that purpose is the 1755-1850 MHz range.

The Pentagon is the primary occupant of those airwaves in the United States and wants to stay there, maintaining its uplinks for more than 120 satellites. Moving all defense systems out would take until 2017, officials say.

Larson, of the wireless trade group, contends the Pentagon could make lots of money if it sold some bandwidth, noting that the sale of a much smaller spectrum this year earned $17 billion.

But U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Robert M. Nutwell expressed skepticism about ``win-win scenarios,'' predicting lawmakers would divert any such earnings to nonmilitary uses.

And there's still the question of where the military would go.

Not all bandwidths are created equal. The under-3 gigahertz spectrum range, where the military is now located, is jam-packed because it is so useful, allowing mobile communications to penetrate foliage and buildings, Nutwell said.

At higher ranges, communications can require more power, transmissions may have to be outdoors and signals may even be foiled by rain, he said.