Copyright 2004 Gannett Company Inc.


May 13, 2004, Thursday, FIRST EDITION

From Lexis Nexis

Despite the objections of TV broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission today is expected to propose allowing unlicensed wireless services to use vacant airwaves between TV stations.

Under the plan, unlicensed wireless high-speed Internet services could use unused frequencies between channels 2 and 51 in each market, as long as they didn't disrupt existing stations.

The proposal, expected to lead to a final ruling later this year, would pave the way for more robust and less expensive wireless Internet services by 2006.

But some broadcasters say the new offerings could interfere with over-the-air TV signals.

Today, Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, services let consumers with Wi-Fi-equipped computers get fast wireless Web services in coffee shops, hotels and airports. Also, scores of providers are delivering longer-range wireless broadband service in rural areas. With both, fixed broadband lines are hooked to antennas that beam to users over other unlicensed airwaves.

But providers and equipment makers are salivating at the prospect of using the TV spectrum, which is in lower-frequency bands that let signals travel farther and better penetrate buildings and foliage. That means more seamless service — and lower costs, because fewer antennas are needed.

"This (spectrum) is beachfront property," says Peter Pitsch, communications policy director for Intel, a Wi-Fi chip maker. "In rural areas where the nearest broadcaster is 100 miles away, you could crank the power up and provide very low-cost wireless broadband service."

New, intelligent wireless gear can avoid TV interference, say FCC and industry officials. Antennas can check a channel to see if a TV station is using it and even adjust its power based on the station's power. Also, TV stations' strong signals are generally invulnerable to weaker wireless transmissions.

But Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters says "real-life situations" often don't match computer forecasts.

The FCC says it would limit wireless device power, among other safeguards. "We do not want to jeopardize broadcasters in any way," says Ed Thomas, chief of the FCC's bureau of engineering and technology.

Michael Calabrese of the New American Foundation, which promotes competition, says interference fears are a smokescreen. Broadcasters, he says, are eyeing the vacant spectrum to offer new subscription TV or other services. Wharton denied the claim.

Thomas says the plan could benefit TV stations, which could use the unlicensed airwaves for interactive TV, sending digital TV signals to tuners in laptops. Consumers could take part in shows by buying products or answering questions.

"One of our jobs is to always seek out opportunities, but first things first," says Andrew Setos, president of engineering for Fox Group. Fox, he says, wants to ensure there is no risk of interference.