The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will decide this month where to find radio spectrum for a new breed of high-speed wireless Internet access and other advanced services. Hanging in the balance are what are known as third-generation (3G) wireless applications that will deliver to mobile workers almost anything currently available on desktop PCs.

For state and local government agencies, 3G applications will allow patrol officers to exchange fingerprint files and mug shots with headquarters, seamlessly link field workers with vital internal databases and perform any number of other tasks. But a lack of wireless bandwidth has hobbled their development. And with little prime radio spectrum unoccupied, the FCC must pry blocks of airspace from current users, few of whom are likely to relinquish it without a fight.

"Weve got this major battle shaping up in Washington over whos going to have to give up spectrum for 3G," said former FCC Chairman William Kennard, addressing telecommunications executives at a recent wireless Internet conference.

"Were on the verge of what I call a spectrum drought," said Kennard, now a senior fellow with the Aspen Institute. "Its such a tragedy because here we are at the point when the wireless Web is just beginning its migration out of the PC and into all of these wonderful, handheld, Web-enabled devices, and spectrum has emerged as a major gating factor to that migration."

Widening the Roads

Spectrum forms the highway over which wireless communications travel. Like motorists before the creation of the interstate highway system, current wireless users are bumping along narrow back roads. Clearing spectrum for 3G services widens the roads for wireless traffic.

For a number of technical reasons, the best spectrum for mainstream wireless applications sits at frequencies below 3GHz. Most of that airspace is already in use, meaning existing users will need to be relocated. The FCC and the National Telecommunications Infrastructure Administration have studied several frequency blocks that could be reallocated to make room for 3G services, including radio bands currently held by the Department of Defense (DoD), fixed wireless operators and commercial television broadcasters.

"Most of the estimates I have seen conclude that we need about 160MHz to 200MHz of spectrum for 3G, and we just dont have virgin spectrum for it," Kennard said. "Thats why weve got to target spectrum thats already encumbered."

Making a Deal

An October 2000 memorandum from President Clinton directs the FCC to find radio frequencies for 3G services by July and auction that airspace to wireless communications carriers by Sept. 30, 2002. Of the options under consideration, broadcasters and the DoD are the best targets for spectrum relocation, Kennard said. Surprisingly, the DoD may be the easier of the two with which to negotiate.

Auctioning the DoDs current radio spectrum to wireless communications companies would generate billions of dollars, according to Kennard, and a chunk of that money could be used to compensate the department for moving to other frequencies. "I do think there is sort of a classic Washington solution, and that is to throw some money at it," he said. "Tell the generals at the Defense Department that well give them the money, and it wont count against their [budget] appropriation."

Current FCC Chairman Michael Powell is well positioned to broker such a deal, Kennard added. Powell, son of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, is an Army veteran with credibility on military issues. "I think that Michael knows what buttons need to be pushed in the Defense Department, and I really think that its important to attack this with some urgency," Kennard said.

Forcing commercial broadcasters to relinquish their spectrum presents a thornier challenge. Under statute, these broadcasters -- situated in channels 60-69 -- can hang on to their existing frequencies until their markets

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.