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Fed approves new wireless technology

"Ultrawideband" is a faster and more secure way of sending wireless transmissions. But the U.S. military and others say the signals interfere with their own operations.

The Federal Communications Commission in a controversial decision on Thursday approved the commercial use of "ultrawideband" technology.

UWB technology provides a faster and more secure way of sending wireless transmissions. Automakers could use the technology to build collision avoidance systems or improve airbags. Firefighters, police officers and emergency personnel could use it to detect what is behind walls, buried underground or even inside the human body. Consumer products, from laptops to personal digital assistants, could use the equipment to send and receive video or audio.

But the U.S. military and mobile phone carriers say the signals are so powerful they could cause disruptive interference to their wireless operations.

The FCC decision took the interference complaints into account by setting limits on what radio frequencies UWB devices can be operated in, including avoiding those frequencies used by the military and companies that sell global positioning services, technology that pinpoints a person's location.

But police and fire officials criticized the limitations, saying they weaken the strength of the UWB devices they had planned to use.

The FCC in 1998 waived its ban on commercial use of UWB devices, but only for police and fire crews. Some in California and Florida have been using UWB devices to see through walls of burning buildings or into a room where someone is being held hostage.

"The ability to track from 150 feet away is now not possible," said Brian Valania, a Painted Post, N.Y., firefighter. "Now we can't get the signal out 20 feet."

Even FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said the decision sets too many restrictions.

"These limits are intentionally at the extreme end of what FCC engineers--the best spectrum engineers in the country--believe necessary," he wrote of his "reluctant decision" to support the technology. "They were agreed to because of the unique and novel impact of this technology."

Brand-new industry
Despite the restrictions, the FCC's decision still opens doors for a new industry to sell its products--companies that have been waiting since at least 2000, when the FCC began the process of approving UWB technology for use in the United States.

Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds says the decision by the FCC is good news and will result in a faster and more secure way of sending wireless transmissions.

see commentary

"UWB will start marching forward after so much time," said Alan Haase, chief executive of SkyCross in Melbourne, Fla. SkyCross is one of a number of companies that have been waiting at least two years for the FCC to make a decision.

Now, most commercial UWB devices can operate above 3.1GHz, joining transmissions from other wireless systems like 802.11, according to an FCC representative.

The FCC put severe restrictions on UWB devices operating in radio frequencies below 960MHz, now used by most AM/FM radio stations, TV stations, and most older cellular telephone networks. Only ground-penetrating radars used by mining companies and public safety and scientific research firms can operate in this crowded piece of radio waves, an FCC representative said.

"Since there is no production of UWB equipment available, and there is little operational experience with the impact of UWB on other radio services, the commission chose...to err on the side of conservatism by setting emission limits when there were unresolved interference issues," the FCC said. see story: FCC opens door for new wireless technology

In its decision, the FCC cited an earlier report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which tried to settle the interference question in May with its own testing. The NTIA concluded that UWB generates some interference but "could not produce enough power to break-lock with the satellite of interest."

An FCC representative said the nascent industry that makes UWB equipment will have to wait at least 60 days until the rules are adopted before they can move into the brand-new marketplace.