On April 15 the FCC took an important step toward expanding high-speed Internet access—particularly for customers in rural areas without cable or DSL—by proposing a rule change that would benefit the wireless delivery of broadband services. The proposed change would make more room in the electromagnetic spectrum for unlicensed devices by allowing them to operate in the 3,650MHz band at higher power levels than were previously allowed.
This is a great move for the FCC, not only because broadband Internet access is a vital and productive service but also because establishing unlicensed space in which devices may operate is a proven means of encouraging innovation and growth.
The benefits of unlicensed space have been proved before by the success of 802.11b wireless networking gear. No one exclusively owns or controls the portion of spectrum at 2.4GHz—the band on which 802.11b operates—and this open access, combined with a set of solid, widely embraced standards, allows for an environment in which weve seen competition, innovation and low prices.
The unlicensed route works because of the same principles that have driven the success of the Internet: decentralized control and standards-based design.
A similar sort of environment is coming together for delivering wireless broadband services that can compete with and surpass cable and DSL as a way to bring broadband connectivity into homes and businesses and, eventually, to mobile users. As with wireless LANs, theres an IEEE standards group to guide the development of technology in this space, the 802.16 Working Group on Broadband Wireless Access Standards. Theres also an industry association, Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, or WiMAX, to rally vendor support.
Intel has embraced 802.16, announcing plans to include the technology in its future notebook chip sets. This support could one day mean mobile access to DSL-type Internet connections in many more locations than could ever be serviced by Wi-Fi hot spots.
However, the challenges for wireless municipal-area networking predictably extend beyond technology and regulations into issues of interference. The 3,650MHz band the FCC is proposing to open to wider unlicensed access is currently inhabited by licensed users—namely, some 100 FSS (fixed satellite service) earth stations.
In a statement regarding the proposed action, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the FSS stations that might be affected are gathered on the East and West coasts and that fixed wireless broadband transmitters could be stationed to avoid these sites. Powell also said that new, "cognitive radio" technologies could be used to minimize interference with current users of the 3,650MHz band. These methods include "listen before talk" requirements for unlicensed transmitters that would put the onus on these devices to avoid stepping on existing band occupants.
Smarter radios definitely have the potential to make more efficient use of the spectrum, but its not clear how well theyd work. And, as critics point out, its difficult to predict how unlicensed devices will spread and affect current spectrum users.
Interference will continue to be an issue, particularly if the FCC makes good on its plans to further expand space for unlicensed devices in the spectrum now occupied by older technologies such as broadcast television. Its clear that the entrenched license holders will do everything to resist such liberalization, which is why its so important that we, the spectrum owners, are heard on this issue.
If we were to give wireless broadband anything approaching the sort of spectrum broadcast television enjoys, wed be able to deliver users every bit as much news and entertainment as is now available over television while dramatically expanding consumer options and the number of parties that would be able to provide—and profit from—these services.
Thats why Id like to see the discussion move from an exploration of how to make unlicensed devices such as wireless and municipal networking radios fit into leftover cracks of spectrum to a debate over whether and when we should more aggressively reallocate spectrum. This would include discussion about putting the squeeze on licensees to make fast, cheap wireless broadband Internet service a reality as soon as possible.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.
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