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."

Compelling Benefits

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."

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.