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Fast Net access proposed for airwaves

The Federal Communications Commission today issued a proposal to set aside radio frequencies that would allow superfast wireless access to the Internet.

    The Federal Communications Commission today issued a proposal to set aside radio frequencies that would allow wireless access to the Internet at speeds far greater than current phone lines allow.

    The proposal, if approved, would clear the way for development of new devices that would allow users to connect to the Internet and corporate intranets at speeds up to 25 mbps without using phone, cable, or any other land-based lines. Apple Computer, AT&T, Microsoft, and Compaq Computer are among the companies that have expressed interest in developing such devices if the FCC allows frequencies that can carry their signals.

    "These devices will be the cordless phones for computers and will allow you to connect wirelessly to your PC," said Tom Derenge, engineer in the spectrum policy branch at the FCC.

    The unlicensed equipment, known as National Information Infrastructure /SUPERNet devices, could provide short-range (50- to 100-meter), high-speed wireless transmission of digital information and support new wireless local area networks (LANs).

    "One main computer will need to be wired to the Internet via a phone line, and other computers within the range can connect to the network and the Internet wirelessly through that main computer," Derenge said. "The days of drilling holes in walls to provide Internet access to schools will be over with these devices."

    The FCC initiated today's proposal after Apple Computer requested that a spectrum be made available for the devices. The Wireless Information Networks Forum (WINForum), a trade association, has also lobbied for the development of the devices.

    WINForum has a short-range idea that will tie together computers in a small business or a classroom, but Apple is thinking bigger. "Apple wants community networks tied in where schools could be connected within a neighborhood instead of going through a phone line. We're not proposing that at this point, but we're requesting comment on it," Derenge said.

    "The whole point of this is to enable people to experiment," said Jim Burger, senior director of worldwide government affairs for Apple Computer. "There are all sorts of innovative possibilities that you and I couldn't even dream of."

    Initially, the devices would be most useful in places such as schools and small businesses that can't afford wiring for Internet access, experts say. But eventually, they could be used by far more people for many more purposes, such as controlling the heat or turning on the lights in a home.

    The wireless computer device will hit the streets depending on reaction from the industry. "We hope the industry is excited about this and hope they want to make this available," Derenge said. "It depends what they think the public will buy."

    For that reason, Burger said, public comment is crucial. "The community needs to express their opinions on this issue. There hasn't been this kind of freedom and space to grow, but the public needs to say whether or not they agree," he said.

    The proposal is expected to be filed in about a month and will be open for comment 60 days thereafter. The FCC will then meet with interested parties and work on final rules, according to Derenge.

    "The commission is excited about this, and they want to put it on the fast track," he said.

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