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Spectrum Politics and Universal Broadband Service

Spectrum regulation made its way to the forefront of Washington politics
recently, with both the President and representatives of the Federal
Communication Commission expressing views on the future of broadband
wireless data services. President George W. Bush kicked things off in
April when he publicly stated his administration's goal of achieving
universal broadband service by 2007. If that goal has any chance of
being realized, wireless must play a significant part. Then, last month,
representatives of the FCC participated in a panel discussion at the WCA
(Wireless Communication Association) 2004 conference to talk about more
effectively managing radio spectrum.

Most people who live in urban and suburban areas already have broadband
choices, typically DSL or cable, and the combination of competition and
widespread adoption has pushed subscription costs down to as low as $30
per month. However, the further you move from densely populated areas,
the more costly it is for service providers to deliver these broadband
services. Hence, they don't offer the service to all prospective
customers, and there's no law that compels them to do so. In many cases,
the only alternative in outlying areas is satellite, which costs twice
as much per month and suffers from performance and reliability problems.
The most promising solution to this problem is the deployment of
wireless broadband data services such as WiMax.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell hammered home this point at an FCC Wireless
Broadband Forum also held last month. He referred to increasing
broadband access as "the central communication policy objective of the
era." Powell advanced what he referred to as a simple goal: To provide
every single American with affordable broadband data access no matter
where they choose to live. For Powell, delivering on this goal is
essential to the country's global competitiveness. He acknowledged that
the increased availability of DSL and cable is a good thing. But
enhancing the footprint of wireless broadband gives consumers three
alternatives, something Powell refers to as the "Holy Grail," where
"magical things happen in competitive markets."

So how do we get there? Of the initiatives currently on the table, two
seem the most interesting. First, and perhaps most obvious, is the
effort to increase available bandwidth in the unlicensed 5-GHz spectrum.
I've written repeatedly about this issue in the past. Wi-Fi radios that
can operate in this spectrum are already available, and these radios can
be adapted (using alternative MAC interfaces) to provide low-cost
fixed-wireless services, especially in rural areas where interference is
not as great a concern.

The second initiative, which may prove to have as great or greater
impact on future wireless broadband service, relates to the development
of more flexible regulation of the 2.5-GHz MDS and ITFS bands. The 190
MHz worth of choice radio real estate between 2.5 and 2.69 GHz was
originally allocated for specialized educational TV services but
repurposed for data. Sprint and MCI purchased licenses and deployed
first-generation MMDS data services, but limitations of early technology
made it challenging to establish a competitive business model. Now, the
FCC wants to develop more flexible usage regulations as well as increase
competition, through licensing that encourages multiple providers to
share portions of this band, while encouraging broad national deployment
strategies by carriers. Of course, none of this will be possible without
advances in technology. But by sending a clear signal that wireless
broadband is a national policy priority, the government is definitely
encouraging commercial development.

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