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Lawmaker: FCC stifling ultrawideband

A key U.S. lawmaker accuses federal regulators of jeopardizing the new wireless technology, chiefly over unproven fears it might disrupt military systems.

A key U.S. lawmaker on Wednesday accused federal regulators of jeopardizing a promising new wireless technology with household and government applications, chiefly over unproven fears it might disrupt military systems.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin faulted the limited-use policy adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in February for ultrawideband (UWB) devices as an overly timid "baby step."

"This technology has too many promising applications to stifle it based on unfounded--and unproven--concerns," the Louisiana Republican said at a hearing of his panel's subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

UWB's applications include through-the-wall imaging that can aid rescue workers and law enforcers. It also can be used for collision-avoidance radars to reduce deadly auto accidents.

For personal area networking, it can provide wireless links among camcorders, personal computers, DVD players, flat-screen television displays, printers, MP3 players and other devices.

But UWB devices--which emit as many as billons of low-energy pulses a second--pose a range of regulatory concerns. They work across very wide slices of the radio spectrum already licensed to hundreds of government and commercial users.

A key military concern is feared interference with the widely used Global Positioning System (GPS), a satellite navigation tool developed by the U.S. Defense Department to provide accurate navigation worldwide.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Steven Price said at the hearing that even thinly spread UWB energy "interferes with very low power signals from distant sources, such as GPS satellites, which are over 12,000 miles away." He also cited possible risks to government airport radars, ground distance-measuring systems and the U.S. ability to train with precision-guided munitions.

"Disruption of these systems by UWB operations could undermine U.S. efforts in the war on terrorism and erode homeland defense," said Price, who handles spectrum, space and sensor issues for the Pentagon.

Tauzin acknowledged U.S. military concerns, but added: "I want real-world evidence that tells us whether ultrawideband devices, on a standalone or cumulative basis, would cause these things to occur."

The chairman said he had watched "certain government bureaucrats and certain industries try their absolute best" to smother UWB technology rather than deal with the technical complexities it presents.

With appropriate technical standards, UWB may operate using airwaves occupied by existing radio services without causing interference, an FCC expert told the panel. This would permit scarce spectrum resources--one of the most valuable commodities on Earth for government and commercial users--to work more efficiently.

Acting unanimously on Feb. 14, the FCC acknowledged that it was "proceeding cautiously" in permitting development and marketing of unlicensed, low-power UWB devices.

The commission said its cautious first step was based largely on recommendations of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration--a Commerce Department arm that serves as the federal government's radio spectrum manager and chief adviser to the president on the issue.

Under questioning by Tauzin, Julius Knapp, deputy chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, conceded he was unaware of any documented case of UWB interference with any life-saving systems.

"UWB technology is still in its infancy and it is important that the government continue to monitor" its development, he said. The FCC will conduct its own testing and monitoring of UWB devices over the next six to 12 months. "We'll be watching (the process) carefully," Tauzin said.

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