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Military puts squeeze on wireless industry

For wireless providers to offer high-speed Internet access and other services, they're going to need some air space closely guarded by the Defense Department.

WASHINGTON--Politicians from President Clinton on down profess a devotion to the cause of wireless companies offering high-speed broadband services, but that is unlikely to happen unless the U.S. military agrees to give up some precious air space.

Wireless providers and their hardware partners view so-called third-generation, or 3G, services such as fast Internet connections and streaming video as a revenue windfall, as evidenced by DoCoMo's $9.8 billion investment in AT&T Wireless. Those services will demand more air space, or spectrum, and engineering surveys by the International Telecommunications Union have identified only a few small bands that are compatible with 3G services.

The problem is that those bands all are occupied, some by commercial operations but the majority by more than a dozen government agencies, mostly military.

There is a finite amount of air space, or electromagnetic spectrum, that can be used for any wireless operation, from a cell phone to a radio station. While most of this spectrum is already in use, government officials acknowledge that much of what is being used by federal agencies is not as efficiently allocated as it could be.

Clinton has ordered government agencies to cooperate with the wireless industry to find solutions to the spectrum drought, including the possible sharing or relocation of incumbents. But at a meeting of government and industry representatives Friday, the Department of Defense reiterated its inflexibility and emphasized its need for large swaths of air space over major markets such as New York, Houston and San Francisco, including all of Silicon Valley.

Sharing spectrum with commercial operators "would be awfully challenging," said Mike Williams, a senior engineer with the Defense Department's Joint Spectrum Center and the chair of the military's engineering task force on accommodating 3G wireless. Williams addressed dozens of wireless industry representatives Friday in a cramped Commerce Department room.

He said segmenting the spectrum band in question, 1,755 MHz to 1,850 MHz, into separate pieces was "more promising." However, he added that any dislocation of military operations would mean the Defense Department would need "access to some spectrum somewhere else," and that the military wouldn't hesitate to dislodge some other spectrum users.

"That could have a significant impact" on companies and government agencies using other spectrum, he said, particularly given that the wireless needs of the military from everything to air-to-ground communications to tactical weapons systems could operate only in the lower frequencies of the radio spectrum.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to achieving nationwide 3G services are the protected geographic areas the military has designated across the United States, which coincide with key military installations.

To permit clear air space for communication with aircraft and for satellite control, some of the largest metropolitan areas are all but completely blocked out by the military in the spectrum band in question. These include New York, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Denver, Miami, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Albuquerque, N.M., and the entire San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose and Silicon Valley.

Other areas, such as Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, and Nashville, Tenn., would also encounter some significant interference with military operations.

Greg Rohde, director of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) within the Commerce Department, made it clear Friday he doesn't want to hear excuses.

"We cannot afford as a country not to move ahead on third-generation wireless," he said. "We have no choice but to be very aggressive and active."

Rohde, whose agency is responsible for overseeing government use of spectrum, also said he's tired of both industry and government representatives jockeying for position with the agency. "There will be plenty of time for lobbying," he said. "Now we need to have technology meetings" to find engineering solutions.

Other spectrum roadblocks
The military isn't the only obstacle to spectrum availability. Along with the spectrum band the military operates in, Clinton has instructed the Federal Communications Commission to examine the 2,500-MHz to 2,690-MHz band. A full 170 MHz of the 190 MHz in that band is already allocated to commercial fixed wireless users, totaling about 4,700 licensees across the country.

Some of these licensees are educational institutions, but many are telecom providers such as WorldCom and Sprint that are rolling out two-way high-speed Internet access via a fixed dish and direct-line-of-sight transmissions. Bruce Franca, deputy chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, noted that the growth of these companies in the last year means this segment of spectrum is "in a state of fairly rapid change."

The FCC is working on several scenarios that would consolidate fixed wireless to 100 MHz and leave 90 MHz for 3G services, but Franca admitted that this could "require some fairly substantive changes in the technology." Fixed wireless officials oppose this because the industry already is on shaky ground financially, and a need to replace expensive equipment could cause investors to flee.

Fixed wireless operators and others will have an opportunity to comment publicly on the FCC's ideas soon, as Franca promised the agency would begin a formal process for new rules by the end of the year.

Clinton in his executive order said that the FCC should issue new rules for 3G services by July 2001 so that auctions for the airwaves can be held by Sept. 30, 2002.

The NTIA has posted on its Web site an interim report on the 1,755-MHz to 1,850-MHz band, and the FCC has posted on its site an interim report on the 2,500-MHz to 2,690-MHz band.