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 convert to digital television, which isnt scheduled to happen until Dec. 31, 2006.
Although the FCC has circulated several reports on options for encouraging broadcasters to vacate the space sooner, Kennard said the solution lies in setting a hard deadline for a frequency change and enforcing it. "This is prime beachfront property. It was not given to them; it was loaned to them by the American public," he said. "We really need to send a message that this resource is too valuable to be left in perpetuity with an unclear path of how it is going to be developed."
He also advocates creating a "squatters fee" that kicks in once the relocation deadline passes. "Any broadcasters still sitting on that spectrum after the deadline will have to pay a spectrum fee -- and it will be an escalating fee, so there will be a disincentive for holding on to it."
Feeling the Pinch
Citing industry estimates, the FCC expects significant wireless communications growth over the next several years. And although mobile telephone services now account for the lions share of wireless traffic, analysts anticipate that mobile data use will accelerate rapidly, according to the agency. One forecast predicts there will be 100 million users of mobile data services by 2007, while another foresees wireless data subscribers outnumbering wireline data subscribers by 2002.
Those numbers add up to mounting demand for wireless spectrum -- and some state and local government wireless users already are beginning to feel the pinch, said John Dorr, director of product marketing for the Mobile Government Division of Aether Systems. He said agencies harbor growing concerns about delivering fat applications through thin wireless bandwidth.
"In our market space, the focus is more on the application than the wireless infrastructure, but they certainly are well aware of the fact. Some of these applications are very data intensive," said Dorr. "There are all kinds of things that were dreaming of, and frankly, the only limiting factor is the size of the pipe to get them there."
Spectrum worries have hobbled efforts to build a more capable breed of wireless services. Instead of developing innovative new products, manufacturers have been forced to sink engineering resources into finding ways to jam wireless data through the existing spectrum, he said. Hazy standards for wireless technology and complacency generated by the countrys well-developed wired Web infrastructure also contribute to slow development of advanced mobile services.
As a result, wireless application deployment in the United States has taken a back seat to initiatives in Europe, Japan and other nations.
"While were still talking about 3G here and barely piloting it, there are other countries around the world that are actually rolling it out," Dorr said. "Its an ironic twist when you think of the United States as the leader of the world, yet in the wireless context, were trailing in a lot of ways."
Dorr expects government adoption of wireless applications to pick up speed as policymakers discover compelling uses for mobile data technology.
Public safety agencies, where rapid data access can be a life-or-death issue, are leading the charge. "If you have pulled someone over for a traffic stop, you want to know as much as you possibly can about that person before you get out of your car," he said. "That creates an insatiable desire for data."
Based on public safetys success with wireless technology, other government agencies will follow suit, Dorr said. "Code enforcers, tax assessors, health and human services workers and public works employees are going to see the value that police and fire are getting from [mobile data], and theyre going to want a piece of it."
Until more spectrum becomes available, "wireless friendly" application design can help lessen the bandwidth crunch. For example, Dorr suggests avoiding transmission of entire documents when only a portion of the material is needed. Kennard added that innovations, such as software-defined radio and ultra-wideband technology, promise to use existing spectrum more efficiently.
But neither design changes nor new technologies will completely erase the spectrum shortfall -- forcing the hand of federal regulators, Dorr said. "Perhaps the ultimate driver for 3G is that there is no quick pill to do something with [the spectrum] that we already have, which means the ultimate answer is more bandwidth."