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Opening up the Airwaves

Wireless industry executives, U.S. senators, federal regulators and even the square-jawed bureaucrats at the Department of Defense all seem to support the expansion of unlicensed radio spectrum, the fuel of the emerging wireless data industry. U.S. companies have a leadership position in unlicensed products--not the case with other wireless technologies--so it makes perfect sense for policymakers and the business community to work together to advance these goals.

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Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and George Allen (R-Va.) last month introduced the Jumpstart Broadband Act, which would allocate 255 MHz of new spectrum in the 5-GHz band, adding to the 300 MHz already available for unlicensed use. The Wi-Fi Alliance and the Information Technology Industry Council have pledged support for the Boxer-Allen Act. Although there's been a lot of attention recently paid to developments in the 2.4-GHz band--especially the release of products built to the 802.11g spec--the passage of this bill could condemn 2.4-GHz gear to a legacy position in the market.

As is often the case in Washington, it's not the official outcome of the legislative process that matters as much as the action itself. The Commerce Department recently announced that one of its agencies, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), working with various public and private interests, agreed to expand the unlicensed use of a block of wireless spectrum between 5.47 GHz and 5.725 GHz. Without support from Defense, which had historically shown concern over unlicensed devices interfering with its radar systems, this agreement wouldn't have taken place.

Despite some technical obstacles that currently let 2.4-GHz products boast better range than 5-GHz products, in the long run bandwidth is the name of the game. And with 555 MHz available at 5 GHz and only 83.5 MHz available at 2.4 GHz, it doesn't take a genius to figure out which band is more strategic.