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Cell phone to sail uncharted airwaves

Carriers are hoping that operating the most popular type of phone in a largely unused part of radio spectrum will bring some relief to the shortage of airwaves for calls.

ORLANDO, Fla.--A new cell phone that works in a relatively unused portion of radio spectrum is coming to the United States this year, bringing with it the tantalizing prospect of relief for wireless companies battling a shortage of airwaves to broadcast calls.

The phone, unveiled at this week's Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association show here, is the first to use the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard to broadcast its signal using the 800MHz band of spectrum. GSM phones, which are the most popular in the world, have never operated in that particular portion of radio-wave real estate.

The upcoming shipments of the so-called 850 phones are part of a broader effort by wireless carriers to make more efficient use of the available spectrum. The carriers say there is a spectrum shortage and recent decisions indicate that the U.S. government won't be making any additional spectrum available for at least a year, and possibly beyond.

Carriers say they need new spectrum to keep up with the growing demand for wireless services and to be able to offer faster phone service to their customers.

Aside from 850 phones, other recent efforts by carriers include AT&T Wireless' plan to bring AMR to the United States. AMR helps direct a cell phone signal through patches of spectrum crowded by too many calls.

The 850 phones operate on spectrum between 800MHz and 899MHz, used now by a relatively small number of cell phones that are based on Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), another cell phone standard. GSM phones usually operate in the 1900MHz range, which is overflowing with cellular calls.

While the 800MHz spectrum was always available, it wasn't until this year that carriers and handset makers were able to develop the technology needed to use it.

"It gives them more bandwidth to play with," said Jacob Rice of handset maker Siemens, which plans to supply the 850 phones to Cingular Wireless. The phone deal is part of a three-year agreement Siemens has with Cingular Wireless to help build Cingular's new high-speed phone network.

AT&T Wireless Chief Technology Officer Rod Nelson, who said his company plans to sell the 850 phones, said carriers will be able to bring GSM phones into markets where the only bandwidth available to them is in the 800MHz spectrum.

"It'll bring GSM to markets where you just can't have it," he said. "Over the next three or four years, it'll be a standard part of GSM."

Keith Nowak, a spokesman for Nokia, said the Finnish company would sell two 850 phones in the United States in the third quarter of this year. The phones were part of the dozen that Nokia unveiled at the CTIA trade show.