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Wireless broadband may get more spectrum

The FCC signals a willingness to let unlicensed devices share some spectrum devoted to satellites to spread broadband across the country. But some claim it will only create interference.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday said it was willing to create additional unlicensed spectrum so wireless broadband service providers can more quickly spread high-speed Internet connections into rural areas.

The commission, during its monthly meeting, voted to begin a months-long process of rewriting FCC rules to let unlicensed wireless devices operate in a patch of spectrum now used by satellite operators, and at power levels much higher than usually allowed.

Wireless Internet service providers pressuring the FCC for new spectrum could get the airwaves and authority to more cheaply deliver high-speed Internet access to Internet gateways serving rural areas. A wireless connection to "backhaul"--move data hundreds of miles--is a cheaper alternative than digging trenches and laying down hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable in often inhospitable terrain. Expressing interest in using the spectrum are manufacturers of a new high-speed wireless standard called WiMax, which has a range of up to about 30 miles and data transfer speeds of up to 70 megabits per second.

"This may be another giant step in our effort to bring affordable broadband services to all Americans," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in remarks released Thursday.

But some participants in the debate have expressed concerns about interference if the spectrum becomes crowded with devices like Wi-Fi wireless networking products built to use the spectrum before licensed operators were allowed to use it as well. The resulting interference would be "virtually impossible" to fix, Sprint wrote in comment to the FCC.

"Identifying interfering unlicensed devices is virtually impossible for mobile network licensees after the fact," Sprint wrote. "Once interfering licensed devices are in the market, it will also be virtually impossible...to recall these devices."

Last week, the also told the FCC it was "extremely concerned" about the proposal. Satellites rely on this patch of airwaves to send television programming and broadband Internet access from the United States to Asia and Europe.

But the FCC said Thursday it believes that some of those fears are unfounded. Ground stations using the spectrum are now on the East and West Coasts, hundreds of miles from the rural areas the FCC's decision targets. As a result, there's little opportunity for the services to be operating in the same geographic areas, which causes interference, the FCC said Thursday.