But Ed Thomas, chief of the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology, questioned whether changes in the FCC's direction would improve the process. "At the end of the day, the question is, Is it working?" he said of spectrum policy. "It ain't broke ... and there's no fact that says changing the rules for a model that's presently working will result in a better model."
Others at the forum trumpeted unlicensed spectrum as a way for new services to come to market quickly. Neil Mulholland, chief executive officer of Prairie iNet LLC, said his company is already using unlicensed wireless spectrum to provide broadband access to 120 communities in rural Iowa and Illinois.
But Theodore Schell, a general partner in Apax Partners Inc. and chairman of Wi-Fi access provider Cometa Networks Inc., said he was "skeptical to the extreme" that Wi-Fi would work as a broadband solution serving large geographical areas other than in rural parts. The cost of scaling such systems, plus problems with loss of service in wooded or hilly areas, make Wi-Fi best used over limited ranges, he said.
Others had even more ambitious goals for Wi-Fi. Thomas Lee, managing director of wireless services for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., predicted that Wi-Fi powered phones would become popular within a couple of years, especially with young consumers used to getting low-cost music on the Internet. "This is an opportunity for a consumer to pay virtually nothing," he said of phone service provided through Wi-Fi receivers.
Others were skeptical of widespread Wi-Fi phone use, questioning if users would be willing to hunt for wireless hotspots to get phone connections outside their homes. Voice quality issues may also hold back voice-over-IP over wireless networks, said Mark Whitton, chief technology officer of wireless networks at Nortel Networks Corp. "As a primary method for voice communications, I think it's a difficult sell," he said.
Lee predicted the main benefit of unlicensed wireless services would be to drive down the cost of competing services such as DSL or cable broadband Internet access.
Asked what the FCC and Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration can do to make life easier for wireless providers, most at the day-long forum asked for certainty from regulators.
Kevin Werbach, founder of the Supernova Group LLC, which organizes conferences on decentralized technologies, called on the FCC to set up minimal regulations, then get out of the way and let the market and technologies hash out how to play fairly with each other over the wireless spectrum.