B>And they're off: The 18 companies that bought chunks of radio spectrum in the biggest auction of all time are out of the gate. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt handed out broadband personal communications services licenses to the companies, and gleefully talked about how much money the government made ($7.7 billion) and the positive competition ahead. Hundt said that this is "the biggest single investment in new technology." Because this auction was the first to offer licenses with voice capabilities, the buyers are expected to introduce new wireless phone products. The competition will create a legacy including more choices for customers, lower prices, and 1 million new jobs, Hundt said.

Watch out, Mr. Gates: Online services are gearing up to fight the inevitably successful launch of Microsoft's Internet access network in August. America Online, which now claims it has 3 million subscribers, is planning a simultaneous offering of a new Internet product, Global Network Navigator. GNN will be aimed at the sophisticated user. AOL also plans to create Europe Online together with Bertelsmann AG, which runs a 40 million-member music club. CompuServe, holding its own with 3.2 million subscribers, is expected to announce new bundling deals with PC manufacturers.

But will they get Melrose Place? General Instrument Corp., Chicago, is designing an end-to-end wireless system that will bring multichannel television to 300,000 subscribers in Saudi Arabia over the next three years. Customers will get 20 channels of programming, 17 of which will be used by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Information.

Poland Telecom jumps ahead: The Polish telecommunications industry is the largest and most strategically located telecom market in Eastern Europe, according to a study by International Technology Consultants, Bethesda, Md. Sales of communications services in Poland went up 12 percent from 1992 to 1993, and then jumped 20 percent in 1994. Within five years, Telekomunikacja Polska SA, the government-run telephone monopoly, plans to double the number of existing telephones in the country. Poland's Telecommunication Ministry expects the project to cost around $5 billion. In addition, President Lech Walesa has just signed a law that will further open the telecom market to private foreign investment. "The telecom regulatory environment in Poland is not only the most progressive of any Eastern or Central European country, but also the furthest along toward an open market orientation in many services," said Gene Prilepski, ITC senior consultant.

From Pennsauken to Thameside: Sprint last week came out with what it said is the speediest transoceanic Internet link, capable of carrying information 17 times faster than any other system. The link has the additional distinction of being the world's first international broadband Internet service. The line, unveiled at the Internet Engineering Task Force Conference in Stockholm, carries traffic between Pennsauken, N.J., and Thameside, U.K., and runs over Sprint's transatlantic submarine cable system.

Cantonese, Mandarin, or English? Cable and Wireless has introduced "Asia Direct," a prepaid calling card sold in the U.S. for national or international calls Co-branded by CWI and Hongkong Telecom, the card is targeted to the growing number of Chinese language callers in the U.S. Callers get multilingual voice prompts in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

A whole lot of wires: Telecommunications manufacturing made the biggest jump in electronics industry sales during the first half of this year, according to the Electronic Industries Association. Telecom accounted for $29 billion of sales, up 24 percent from the $23.4 billion made in the first half of 1994. It looks like a good year for other parts of the industry as well: Electronic components were up 19.8 percent; computers and peripherals grew 14 percent; and consumer electronics sold 13.8 percent more than at the same time last year.

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