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FCC sets rules for new spectrum

Several companies are interested in using the 27MHz of bandwidth spectrum that was once only for government use. For others, the possibility may be discouraging.

Federal regulators have set ground rules for the commercial use of 27MHz of wireless spectrum that was once exclusively for use by the government.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's announcement late Thursday was one of the last steps in the process before the bandwidth becomes available to companies that want to use it. The FCC is expected to begin soliciting applications to license the spectrum in the next few weeks.

The bandwidth has attracted the interest of wireless start-ups like Itron, a Washington-based maker of wireless products used by petroleum companies to guard oil pipelines. Other interested companies include ArrayComm, which hopes to use the bandwidth for a high-speed wireless Internet service, and AeroAstro, which makes small satellites that can be used for wireless voice and data networks.

FCC Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy described the smaller companies as "essential wireless services that often receive less attention." She said the FCC's new rules are part of a broader approach to make spectrum available to smaller start-ups working on new ideas.

"It is imperative that we adopt a diverse...approach that allows a wide variety of services to survive, thrive and serve the American people," Abernathy said in comments that accompanied the rules.

But not everyone will be happy, it seems.

Wireless carriers like Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless, which say they don't have enough spectrum to meet customer needs, will likely be discouraged by the new rules, a source within the FCC said Friday. The FCC has decided to divide the spectrum into seven sections, each too small to satisfy wireless carriers' needs, the source said.

ArrayComm Vice President Randall Coleman said his company is reviewing the nuances of the rules before deciding whether to go ahead with development plans.

"The commission didn't provide much detail, and we won't really know," he said. "But judging from what they did divulge, we're very pleased; at least they've gotten it right in most instances in all the issues we're interested in."

The FCC began investigating whether to open up the spectrum to public use two years ago. By the end of 2001, it decided that the airspace was suitable for commercial use.

This week's move set the ground rules for companies that want to use these bits of radio frequencies. The rules would limit the power of some broadcasts so they wouldn't interfere with things like weather satellites operating in the same bit of spectrum, for example.

The spectrum that has gathered the most interest for possible use sits between 1,670MHz and 1,675MHz, a range that isn't used by many government agencies. The FCC has decided to license this spectrum to just one company, and it will have to share the spectrum with any government-generated broadcasts. ArrayComm, AeroAstro and another company, Inside Trax, have all expressed interest, according to FCC filings.

Another piece, between 2,385MHz and 2,390 MHz, will also only have one licensee, the FCC has decided. But this space has "a lot of government incumbents," making it less attractive for commercial use, the FCC said.

A portion of spectrum between 1,392MHz and 1,395MHz has drawn the interest of companies that create private cellular telephone services for businesses or households, the FCC said. The FCC does not plan to restrict the number of licenses to use this bit of bandwidth.

The FCC heavily restricted the use of spectrum between 1,427MHz and 1,429.5MHz. This portion of bandwidth is used to broadcast information from monitoring devices that are worn by patients in hospitals, nursing homes or other medical facilities. Broadcasts from these devices will get priority use, the FCC decided. To share this space means a private company might have to interrupt its broadcasts if the airspace is too crowded.