U.S. struggles to find airwaves room for new wireless services

Saturday, March 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Americans await the day when they can easily watch video on their cell phones or surf the Internet at fast speeds on handheld gadgets. But first the U.S. government must balance competing interests of the Pentagon, educational and religious broadcasters and others.

Studies released Friday suggest that federal officials will face serious difficulties in making room on the crowded airwaves for the next breed of wireless services. U.S. officials are keen to find a solution so they can maintain the nation's edge in the telecommunications sector.

``The Bush administration believes that government's responsibility is to create an environment that fosters continuing advancement,'' said Commerce Secretary Don Evans. Acknowledging the challenges ahead, Evans called the report a first step and pledged to work with industry leaders and Pentagon officials to find a solution.

Wireless companies say they need more airwaves space to offer consumers the future: Third-generation, or 3G, systems, which can deliver the Internet 6 1/2 times faster than a traditional phone connection. That would transform cell phones and other devices into mobile computers that can navigate the Internet, display video and provide constant e-mail access.

But the frequencies best suited for offering these new services already have inhabitants. The Defense Department uses the airwaves space for satellite control stations, tactical radio relay systems, air combat training operations and other functions.

Certain slices of those airwaves are used by hundreds of groups to beam educational and religious programming and by companies like Sprint and WorldCom to offer high-speed Internet access.

The Federal Communications Commission is supposed to identify by July which segments of the airwaves could be freed for wireless services so it can auction licenses in September of 2002.

But a study by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration _ which oversees government use of the airwaves _ painted a dim view of the possibilities for wireless services to share space with the military.

Sharing frequencies in the 1755-1850 MHz range would be infeasible, the Defense Department said. Some frequencies in the 1710-1755 MHz range, currently held by the government, could be made available for wireless companies. But military services may have to be relocated to other portions of the airwaves, which by law must be comparable to the space the Pentagon has now.

Switching over military and other federal operations could cost the private sector $2.1 billion to $4.5 billion. Yet another hitch is the military won't be able to move some operations until after 2010.

``Our overarching objective is preserving military capability,'' said Rear Adm. Robert Nutwell, a deputy assistant defense secretary. The military wants to be persuaded first that no other solution is available in the private sector, he added.

Industry groups, though not agreeing with all the report's conclusions, said they were encouraged that the Commerce Department still plans to meet with groups to seek a solution.

``That process must include a dialogue among all parties rather than the kind of unilateral assertion of the status quo put forth by the Defense Department,'' said Tom Wheeler, head of the wireless industry's top lobbying group.

The FCC conducted its own study to determine whether frequencies could be freed in the 2500-2690 MHz range. That space is currently used by institutions that broadcast educational or religious programming and by companies that transmit wireless Internet access to consumers' homes.

But trying to squeeze in wireless companies with these other services could cause serious interference, the FCC said. There is no space readily available to relocate existing users and doing so could cost those companies $19 billion over a 10-year period, the commission said.

The Catholic Television Network, which represents 16 educational broadcast systems operated by the Catholic church, emphasized the critical role their members play in providing teacher training and student materials to those who wouldn't have access.

These providers hope to offer two-way Internet service as well, said the group, which is petitioning to hold on to its existing frequencies.