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Giving Wireless Access to Those Who Need It

July 22, 1996|GARY CHAPMAN | Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin

One paradox about the push to wire schools, libraries and other public agencies to the Internet is that budgets for all of these institutions are falling--indeed, the entire public sector is under attack.

This paradox applies to poor people as well. Growing income inequality means that low-income people have greater difficulties affording or getting access to the technologies they need to learn in order to get better jobs.

This downward spiral, familiar to those at the bottom of society, is only going to get worse as affluent neighborhoods, wealthy schools and high-skilled workers accelerate away from everyone else.

So it's heartening to see one company, Apple Computer, thinking creatively about what to do about this problem. Apple has been shaken lately by bad financial news, but it still is home to some real visionaries.

A year ago, Apple petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to release a portion of the radio frequency spectrum for unlicensed wireless digital communications. Apple called this the "NII Band"--for national information infrastructure--and proposed a bandwidth of 300 megahertz in the 5-gigahertz range (5150-5300 MHz and 5725-5875 MHz).

Now the FCC is taking public comment on this proposal before its formal rule making. FCC Chairman Reed Hundt announced in May that he intends to set aside the bandwidth spectrum that Apple suggested, and even increase it by 50 MHz. This is a surprising move to some, because spectrum auctions recently conducted by the FCC have raised tens of billions of dollars for the federal government. The bandwidth reserved for unlicensed digital wireless networking could be worth tens of billions more.

What does all this mean for schools, libraries, health facilities and neighborhoods?

A wireless local area network would let schools put computers in any classroom without the need for expensive rewiring through concrete walls or across far-flung campuses. Libraries, which are typically cramped for space, could locate computers where they're needed and where they're likely to be used.

Health-care facilities could have terminals throughout the building, supplemented by hand-held computers and even computers on rolling carts.

Neighborhoods could use free wireless bandwidth for digital information kiosks, pay-per-use Internet terminals, public transit information stations and community networking.

And most important, free public access to unlicensed bandwidth of the radio spectrum would allow schools, libraries, government offices and community computer networks to get onto the information superhighway without having to pay for a commercial wire for each of their computers. They would pay only for the Internet service itself. And the bandwidth set aside by the FCC is enough for high-speed data transmissions--up to 24 megabits per second or more--and for large numbers of users.

Through a new consortium called WinForum, large wireless companies including AT&T, Motorola, Nortel and Ericsson have backed the idea of unlicensed wireless services. But WinForum says they should be limited to the inside of buildings lest they create unfair competition for new commercial wireless services known as personal communications services, or PCS.

Apple's original proposal envisioned outdoor digital networks with roughly 17 to 25 miles of range, sufficient for most U.S. communities. Apple officials, including Jim Lovette, the principal architect of this initiative, say the FCC's proposed rule doesn't go far enough in supporting outdoor networking.

This unlicensed bandwidth would be available to everyone--using it would be comparable to being a ham radio operator. It wouldn't be a universal solution for Internet access, though: There would be capacity limits, interference and a general level of service quality too low for some applications. And the transmission speeds on this kind of network fall well short of what's possible over fiber-optic cable.

Lovette says that the use of this bandwidth will depend on the competence and speed-to-market of vendors who can make equipment for it. But he estimates that commercial products could be on the market for outdoor networks within six months from the FCC ruling, which is due in the spring of 1997 but could come earlier.

The shared public bandwidth proposal is one of those rare win-win ideas--the federal government gets out of the way, and people take over. Lovette cautions, however, that this is not a done deal.

To get involved, send your thoughts to the FCC. You can do this by e-mail, to the address 96-102@FCC.GOV, or mail comments to the Federal Communications Commission, Public Comment Item 96-102, Washington DC 20554.

The public comment period runs until Aug. 14. Relevant documents can be found on the Web at and

Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at

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