US lawmakers blast FCC on ultrawideband policy

WASHINGTON - Congressmen criticized the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for potentially stifling a new technology by taking too conservative an approach to how they regulate commercial use of ultrawideband communications.

At a U.S. House of Representatives hearing held here Wednesday, members of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet questioned an FCC official on how the commission arrived at its spectrum policy for ultrawideband devices. Lawmakers also queried other federal agencies about their concerns that commercial ultrawideband devices will interfere with communications in spectrum that is set aside for government use.

Ultrawideband devices send and receive short-range, high-speed transmissions and can be used to provide connectivity in home and office wireless LANs, as well as offer short-distance connections among mobile devices such as cell phones, pagers, and handheld computers. Ultrawideband can also be used as a detection technology that penetrates walls and floors, in vehicular radar systems, and in surveillance products. It uses short-duration pulses that dart around other traffic traversing the same airwaves, and as a result can operate across spectrum already occupied by other radio services.

In April the FCC authorized limited commercial use of wireless devices based on ultrawideband; until that point only the federal government was allowed to use the technology.

But that authorization came with a list of strict standards for commercial use and device compliance. Critics claim ultrawideband's short yet plentiful pulses can cause interference with other systems, particularly radio and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. Both the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which were represented at Wednesday's hearing, voiced concerns that if the technology proliferates, their use of communications systems in critical situations such as military operations and air-traffic control would be compromised due to that interference.

The FCC said it plans to do extensive testing throughout the year to determine if commercial ultrawideband devices do in fact interfere with other communications systems, and will adjust its restrictions accordingly.

It was the FCC restrictions on ultrawideband with which legislators at the hearing took issue, stating that such limitations are unnecessary since it has not yet been proven that commercial devices will cause interference.

"I don't want our military operations to be interfered with, and I don't want planes to fall out of the sky," said Louisiana Democrat Billy Tauzin, chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee that the subcommittee holding the hearing is part of. "But I want real-world evidence that tells us whether ultrawideband devices, on a stand-alone or cumulative basis, would cause these things to occur."

The chairman also accused the FCC of deferring to the wishes of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce tasked with representing the federal government's interests in spectrum policy.

"The FCC is supposed to be the balance to the NTIA," Tauzin said. The FCC should set guidelines for commercial use of spectrum that coordinate with the NTIA's priorities, he added, but in this case "the commission adopted emissions limits based on levels with which NTIA was comfortable."

The FCC does not want to shut down the ultrawideband industry, said Julius Knapp, deputy chief of the commission's office of engineering and technology, who testified at the hearing. The rules limiting commercial ultrawideband use are as flexible as possible, Knapp said, and the commission hopes to release a proposal by the end of the year that will modify those rules based on findings from its own testing.

Yet customers are already cancelling orders for ultrawideband devices because they are afraid the technology will be banned by the FCC, said witness Dennis Johnson, president of Geophysical Survey Systems Inc., which makes ground-penetrating radar systems.

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