Take a Number

The FCC's outdated test gear and staffing shortage delay approval of wireless advances

Fantasma networks boasted some of the best minds in the world of ultrawideband technology. Backed in part by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the company dreamed of creating a new kind of wireless data network on the cutting edge.

Last month, Fantasma closed its doors. The reason: The company could raise no more money because the Federal Communications Commission has yet to set any technical standards for ultrawideband transmissions. And the FCC is a long way from doing that, because its small engineering arm is plagued by chronic understaffing, aging test and measurement equipment, and anemic budgets.

Those problems are costing technology companies untold millions of dollars--in some cases sucking the profit entirely from products with short shelf lives. The typical mobile phone, for example, has a market life span of a little more than one year--with most of the sales coming in the first six months. Any delay, even a few weeks, can be very expensive.

"The cost is in the millions and millions of dollars," said Grant Seiffert, vice president of government relations at the Telecommunications Industry Association.

If the problems persist, companies fear they will also interfere with the deployment of promising new technologies such as Bluetooth, a wireless standard for automatically interconnecting mobile devices in close proximity to one another. And that could threaten the already precarious financial situation of other manufacturers.

"Bluetooth is becoming more or less a standard in products coming to the FCC," said Allen Groh, director of international trade and regulatory compliance at Ericsson. "And it takes a very long time to get a new engineer [who understands it] online and train them."