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U.S. to Review Airwave Allocation

Yearlong study ordered as pressure grows to expand public safety and commercial access.

June 06, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a move that could pave the way for a big expansion in wireless communications, the Bush administration Thursday ordered a comprehensive review of how the federal government manages the nation's scarce radio airwaves.

"We must unlock the economic value and entrepreneurial potential of U.S. spectrum assets while ensuring that sufficient spectrum is available to support critical government functions," President Bush said in a memo to government agencies.

The directive came in response to mounting pressure to allocate more airwaves to public safety officials, utility companies, railroads and the burgeoning cell phone industry. They all want to shift to a more modern communications system that relies on digital, rather than analog, devices.

The fast-growing wireless phone industry, for instance, has attracted more than 140 million subscribers. But the increasing subscriber demand for the ability to download computer data, send digital pictures and make ordinary voice calls is taxing commercial networks. Similarly, police and fire departments and utility companies serving sprawling communities also need more capacity.

The yearlong review, which will be directed by the Commerce Department, probably will focus on airwaves in the 1755- to 1850-megahertz band now held by the military, analysts said Thursday.

Those frequencies are reserved for Air Force communications, intelligence gathering and the global positioning satellite navigational system. They have been coveted by telephone carriers because they are adjacent to those used by domestic wireless phone services and include frequencies that the World Radio Conference has earmarked for next-generation wireless phones. Public safety officials also have been seeking spectrum near that swath of airwaves.

"The radio spectrum is a key driver of economic growth and supports an array of devices, applications and services Americans have come to depend upon -- from radars used in our national defense to tele-medicine, from mobile phones to the public safety radios used by our first responders," said Michael K. Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

The commercial wireless industry has long had an appetite for more airwaves, especially mobile telephone companies that want to offer high-speed Internet access service and wireless Internet access points, known as Wi-Fi "hot spots."

"The tools we have for formulating spectrum policy are broken, and we look forward to working ... to ensure this national resource is fully utilized as a national safety and economic growth asset," Tom Wheeler, head of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn., said in a statement.

Utility companies and state and local public safety officials also have been pressing the federal government for more airwaves. Their pleas escalated in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the deaths of hundreds of firefighters were blamed on the incompatible radios used by the New York City Fire and Police departments.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications, has scheduled a hearing for next week to examine the need for additional spectrum for public safety officials.

The Pentagon has long resisted overtures to free up more airwaves, saying that relinquishing the frequencies could jeopardize national security, take as long as 30 years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars

In reviewing spectrum management, the Commerce Department will seek input from the communications industry and government agencies.

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