May 14, 2003, 8:10 AM — The use of unlicensed radio spectrum in the U.S. is about to expand from Wi-Fi devices running wireless home networks to mass-market services, including a broadband alternative to cable and DSL and an alternative to cellular phones, according to a group of wireless experts at a discussion of unlicensed wireless technologies at the U.S. Department of Commerce Tuesday.
Internet service providers are already using unlicensed radio spectrum to offer broadband access to customers in rural areas, including parts of Iowa, Illinois and other states, and some panelists at the Department of Commerce forum predicted that mobile phones would soon have 802.11 chips to allow voice communications over unlicensed radio spectrum.
But the forum, which focussed on the potential of unlicensed spectrum, as opposed to licensed spectrum owned by cellular service providers and other companies, had its dissenters. Cellular providers said U.S. regulators shouldn't rush too quickly into opening up large chunks of the radio spectrum to unlicensed uses. Technologies using unlicensed spectrum have many limitations, other critics said.
A Spectrum Policy Task Force report, released by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in November, calls for the FCC to move away from a "command-and-control" model of managing spectrum rights, in which spectrum uses are limited based on regulatory decisions, to a combination of an unlicensed "commons" model and a licensed "exclusive-use" model, in which licensees have exclusive and transferable flexible use rights. The report is available at http://www.fcc.gov/sptf/.
On Thursday, the FCC will consider making additional spectrum in the 5 gigahertz band available for unlicensed wireless uses.
Brian Fontes, vice president of government relations at cellular provider Cingular Wireless LLC, jokingly called the lure of large chunks of unlicensed spectrum "eye candy" or "crack cocaine" for regulators at the FCC.
"You are losing the focus on creating the proper balance between the allocated and licensed versus the unlicensed (spectrum)," Fontes said. "You're talking hundreds of megahertz, and maybe thousands of megahertz of spectrum for unlicensed use. Where is the comparable amount of spectrum available for commercial uses?"
Fontes compared business models based on unlicensed spectrum to overhyped dot-coms, with some ideas that will succeed but the "vast majority" of which will fail. "How does all of this fit into the business model?" he asked. "All of these (services) have to be in the context of a business."