The Federal Communications Commission yesterday adopted rules that will govern the upcoming auction of a major piece of the public airwaves in a bid to further the reach of wireless telephone service and high-speed Internet access.
The new spectrum has been freed by the advent of digital television, whose signals can be more precisely targeted than older signals, and thus require a smaller slice of the airwaves. The FCC is seeking to transition all television to digital broadcast by 2006.
Under rules adopted three years ago, Congress directed the FCC to take back the spectrum for television channels 60 to 69 and auction most of it off, gradually moving stations now on those channels elsewhere. The auction is set to be held this spring.
At issue is 60 megahertz of spectrum. Twenty-four megahertz has been reserved for law enforcement, but the rest--36 megahertz, more than many wireless phone companies now boast in major cities--will be offered for sale. The FCC has been fielding proposals on how best to use the spectrum from dozens of interested communications players, including the giants of the industry.
The parties are roughly split into two camps: Major wireless telephone companies such as AT&T Corp., Sprint PCS, Bell Atlantic-Vodafone and Nextel Communications Inc. have pressed the commission to make much of the airwaves available for the next generation of wireless phones, which are expected to spread the Internet beyond computers and into people's hands.
Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., PSINet and others have lobbied to have much spectrum reserved for "fixed wireless broadband"--high-speed Internet delivered to homes and offices through the air.
The commission portrayed its new rules as broad and flexible enough to accommodate all interests.
"This order establishes an exciting framework for wireless in the 21st century," said FCC Chairman William E. Kennard. "Our rules allow auction winners to take advantage of technological advancements in providing a wide variety of new wireless services. . . . This can only mean great things for consumers."
The rules govern 30 of the 36 megahertz to be made available. Licenses will be auctioned nationwide, with the country split into six geographic areas. Companies will be allowed to capture licenses in all six areas, gaining the ability to sell services on a nationwide basis.
Still left to be resolved is what may be done with the final 6 megahertz, which run up against the airwaves used by law enforcement and thus involve sensitivities about interference.
That spectrum has been the subject of fierce debate. Motorola Inc. has asked the commission to reserve it for walkie-talkies and other small communication devices, arguing that only those can be used without running the risk of interference. Freespace Communications, a fledgling company that has developed a chip that it claims can compress great amounts of computer data into narrow bands of spectrum, has pushed to have that bit made available for voice and Internet.
The commission handed Freespace a partial victory: It plans to further study the issue before handing down the rules.
CAPTION: Chairman William E. Kennard says the FCC is creating a framework for wireless in the 21st century.