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Wi-Fi joins broadband access debate

Souped-up Wi-Fi networks edge their way into the discussion on how to spread broadband Web access to remote places, an issue that focused on cable modems and DSLs.

Souped-up Wi-Fi networks have elbowed into the debate over how to spread broadband Web access to small cities and rural areas, a debate that until recently focused solely on cable modems and digital subscriber lines.

U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and George Allen (R-Va.) say wireless networks should be considered as well. The two intend to introduce a bill called "The Jumpstart Broadband Act," which is meant to spur development of more powerful and cheaper long-range wireless networks that can be enlisted to bring broadband to the masses.

The Boxer-Allen bill asks the Federal Communications Commission make available more free-to-use spectrum in a bandwidth strong enough to send signals for miles at a time. The bill also would set "rules of the road," so the transmissions won't interfere with other users of the bandwidth, which include the military, the two senators wrote to colleagues on Wednesday.

Broadband Web access has reached only about 11 percent of U.S. households, according to many telecommunications analysts. Lawmakers are now debating how to breach the digital divide, believing more high-speed Web access in more places could boost the nation's gross domestic product by $500 billion a year by 2006.

"This debate has reached an unproductive stalemate and fails to consider that other technologies are available that can jump-start consumer-driven investment and demand in broadband services," the two senators wrote in a letter asking for support of bill, which is expected to be introduced during the next legislative session.

Long-range wireless networks already exist.

There has been renewed interest recently because equipment makers such as ArrayComm, Nokia, Flarion and Motorola are into their second or third generations of products.

Cato Institute telecom specialist Adam Thierer said the "Jumpstart Broadband Act" has merit, but tackles only half of the problem.

The FCC itself endorsed freeing up more spectrum for public use in a report released Friday. But the FCC, however, more heavily endorses privatizing spectrum, which Thierer calls "the half of the equation" that the act misses.

There must be a balance between "free space and this 'property rights scheme' scheme," to provide the appropriate mix of businesses and interests to foster development, Thierer said.