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Carriers forge ahead with 3G plans

Who knows when policy-makers will free up spectrum for next-generation wireless services? Some providers aren't letting that stop them from moving forward.

    WASHINGTON--It's anybody's guess when policy-makers will free up spectrum for next-generation wireless services, but some providers aren't letting that stop them from moving forward.

    Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless both recently announced plans to provide third-generation, or 3G, services in the next several years, with construction beginning this year. So-called 3G services promise always-on, high-speed Internet access to mobile phones and wireless devices and could include everything from Web surfing to full-motion video.

    On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration issued reports that essentially said spectrum bands targeted for 3G are already too crowded with existing users, and it would be prohibitively expensive to move those licensees to other bands.

    But some policy-makers here are suggesting that wireless providers should make better use of the spectrum they already have if they want to offer 3G services.

    "I have tried and will continue to (prompt wireless) companies to get more out of what spectrum exists," FCC Chairman Michael Powell told the House Commerce Telecommunications Subcommittee on Thursday. "Spectrum will always have a scarce dimension, and there should always be an effort to get better use out of existing spectrum."

    That task isn't an easy one. U.S. wireless providers already squeeze more users into their spectrum than other countries do because less spectrum has been freed for mobile use in the United States. According to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), the United States has allotted only 210MHz for wireless use vs. an average of 355MHz in Europe.

    At the current number of wireless users per 1MHz in the United States, that spectrum difference between the United States and Europe is the equivalent of about 77 million users.

    Demand for wireless services, meanwhile, continues to rise, even without the added lure of 3G. Salomon Smith Barney predicts wireless usage will increase at a compound rate of 70 percent annually over the next 10 years, while Cahners In-Stat Group projects more than 25 million mobile data users in the United States by 2003.

    Some carriers press on
    At the CTIA's recent show in Las Vegas, both Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless committed to offering 3G in existing spectrum.

    Sprint PCS has built an all-digital network, based on CDMA (code division multiple access) technology, that it says allows it greater flexibility in spectrum use and thus "ample spectrum to deploy next-generation, high-speed data services with relative ease," Sprint PCS President Charles Levine said.

    The first phase will begin later this year and bring a tenfold increase in data rates, to 144kbps. By early 2003 the company hopes to achieve peak speeds of 2.4mbps, and 3mbps to 5mbps by early 2004.

    At these multimegabit speeds, the CTIA contends, a wireless system is robust enough to offer such media-rich content as true multiparty videoconferencing. That service would appeal to business users, while consumers might enjoy digital streams of movies or the ability to download entire music albums in seconds.

    The FCC definition for 3G services is 144kbps in a vehicle, 384kbps when walking and 2mbps or higher indoors.

    "CDMA looks very favorable as far as a migration path to 3G," said Strategis Group analyst Elliott Hamilton.

    Sprint insists that any consumer concerned with busy networks shouldn't worry about 3G services being laid on the company's existing network.

    "We have enough spectrum," said Sprint spokesman James Fisher. He said any network disruption someone has experienced is based on the need for more towers, which are being deployed, not on insufficient spectrum.

    Cingular, meanwhile, will debut a service this fall called My Wireless Window that provides always-on Internet connections. The first areas to receive the service will be California, Nevada and Washington. The company also promises to upgrade its GSM-based network to provide faster data speeds.

    Press for spectrum continues
    Sprint says it doesn't need any more spectrum, and it dropped out of a recent 3G auction when the bidding began to escalate. But CTIA President Tom Wheeler is continuing to make the case for additional spectrum, despite the gloomy reports issued Friday.

    Citing a March 29 meeting with Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, who pledged to talk with the military and other spectrum users, Wheeler said "with his hands-on approach I'm sure it will be possible to find pragmatic solutions to our spectrum needs."

    It's not clear how much assistance will come from Powell, who said the FCC finds itself "between a rock and a hard place" in trying to satisfy Congress' desire for spectrum auctions and the wireless industry's need for spectrum and at the same time respecting existing spectrum users, such as the military.

    Wheeler disputed the position of Powell and others that existing spectrum can be an answer. In a presentation recently he noted that the United States already has nearly 530,000 mobile customers per 1MHz of spectrum. In contrast, Germany has 200,000, Japan has about 120,000 and the United Kingdom has just more than 80,000. Finland, where wireless use is nearly universal, has a mere 15,000 users per 1MHz of spectrum.

    But Hamilton saw the possibility of greater spectrum efficiency. There are superconducting technologies that reduce interference, he said, and "smart towers" that divide a signal to get more use out of a cell site.

    Hamilton doesn't anticipate much development in the near term on freeing up additional spectrum, particularly spectrum at 1.7GHz currently occupied by the Pentagon.

    "That's a big boulder in the road," he said. "It's hard to argue against national defense."

    But one solution he saw was to lift the cap limiting a carrier's spectrum in a given market. That would allow some national carriers to merge and combine their spectrum, "and that may be a good thing," Hamilton said.