WASHINGTON — In a move that could greatly accelerate the number of wireless Internet hookups, federal regulators are about to auction off some TV airwaves for use by wireless communications companies.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard has sent a letter to Congress outlining his agency's plans to auction the airwaves, which are now occupied by television stations broadcasting on channels 60, 61, 62, 65, 66, 67 and 69. FCC officials are finalizing auction rules and expect to conduct a sale by spring that could generate more than $2.5 billion.
That brings futurists one step closer to a dream of a go-anywhere wireless network that would give users a ubiquitous connection to the global Internet.
Unlike previous FCC airwave sales, which mostly lured stodgy phone companies seeking to extend their cellular networks, this one has also attracted interest from some of the biggest names in Hollywood and high tech. They include software giant Microsoft Corp., the Walt Disney Co, the Web portal Yahoo Inc. and computer networking giant Cisco Systems Inc.
At present, wireless access to the Internet is offered by mobile phone carriers such as Sprint PCS, Nextel, Bell Atlantic and Air Touch at roughly one-fourth the speed with which most home users access the Internet over phone lines. They offer e-mail and other Web services on their existing networks, and this forces mobile phone users to share space with the Internet's capacity-hogging data users.
But TV waves will offer Internet and wireless connections at speeds three to 30 times faster than current analog computer modems and from locations deep inside buildings that are difficult for regular cellular frequencies to penetrate. New handsets will be needed to access these new wireless channels.
"This is potentially a huge breakthrough for wireless communications, especially in rural areas that have been too expensive to wire for high-speed access," said Scott Blake Harris, a Washington communications lawyer and former chief of the FCC's international bureau.
Under study for months, the proposed auction of the TV airwaves would bring the U.S. a quantum leap closer to Europe and Asia, where wireless Internet connections are already popular. And it is expected to further drive down cellular phone prices.
But experts warn that the FCC auction could turn the wireless Web into a market where only a few big Internet companies are accessible to mobile users. That's because the airwaves being auctioned make up only a fraction of what would be needed to provide enough bandwidth for unrestricted access to the Internet. Internet Web portal Yahoo, for instance, has struck deals to supply Yahoo e-mail, news, scheduling programs and other tools to Motorola Inc. and users of Sprint's wireless PCS network.
"What you are clearly creating is the possibility . . . of having a certain set of Web sites that will be favored over lesser-known sites," said Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president of technology at the Freedom Forum, a research foundation in Arlington, Va.
Mohan Vishnawath, vice president of Yahoo Everywhere, a subsidiary of the popular Web site, said he too has concerns about wireless technology splintering the Internet. He also fears that advertisers will target mobile users in intrusive ways. Using caller-location technology that will soon be available to police and fire officials, a pizzeria, for instance, could send a message to users in the vicinity urging them to stop in for a bite.
For years, experts have forecast the development of wireless networks that would permit people on the move to retrieve data as instantly and as effortlessly as they now field cellular phone calls.
Finland's Nokia--the world's largest wireless phone maker--Qualcomm and other rivals are selling a new generation of cell phones with integrated Internet Web browsers and the ability to send and retrieve e-mail.
Like any gold rush, however, the prospect of a new FCC wireless auction has triggered a bitter fight among would-be bidders about who has the best technology to take wireless Internet access to a more advanced level.
A Silicon Valley start-up called FreeSpace Communications Inc. is touting its plans to use the TV airwaves to offer wireless Internet access at speeds some 30 times faster than today's analog computer modems.
Company founder Mike Farmwald said the service would first be marketed to PC users at fixed locations such as homes and offices but eventually could be delivered to mobile devices. "These frequencies are ideal for high-speed access because unlike most other spectrum bands, they can more easily penetrate building walls like TV signals can," Farmwald said.
But communications equipment maker Motorola wants some of the TV frequencies set aside for private radio use by nonprofit community groups such as the Salvation Army and corporations such as Ford Motor Co., whose factory workers use walkie-talkie-like radios to communicate over private radio frequencies.
Critics of Motorola's plan say it amounts to a huge subsidy for groups that should pay for commercial phones like everyone else who needs mobile communications. But Motorola counters that FreeSpace's plan is untested and could interfere with adjacent airwaves designated for use by police, fire and rescue crews.
The lion's share of the TV spectrum to be auctioned by the FCC will likely be acquired by telecommunications companies that will offer wireless Internet access at more moderate speeds than proposed by FreeSpace, experts say.
But wireless Internet access represents a potentially huge software market for Microsoft, which this week announced that it would join with the Swedish telecommunications group Ericsson Inc. to develop an Internet Web browser for users of mobile phones and hand-held computers.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass contributed to this story.