Free Airwaves for Internet Businesses

Taking Apple's advice, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed giving away spectrum for wireless Internet transmission

P> It may have taken several years of testimonies, explanations and letter-writing, but David Nagel, senior vice president of Apple Computer Inc., Cupertino, Calif., finally convinced the Federal Communications Commission that it's a good idea to open up some airwaves for Internet use.

Under an FCC proposal announced in April, the agency would set aside free, unlicensed radio spectrum for schools and businesses to send information over the Internet. The band is especially desirable because it allows for transmission at speeds hundreds of times faster than traditional telephone lines. Specifically, the FCC plans to open 350 MHz of spectrum at 5.15 to 5.35 GHz and 5.725 to 5.875 GHz, which would be accessed by new wireless equipment.

That's where Apple comes in. The company wanted to manufacture and sell these devices, but needed the FCC to unleash the airwaves. WINForum, a coalition of technology companies, including AT&T, Nortel and Motorola, also has been pressing the FCC to allow the airwaves to be used for wireless Internet transmission. Apple and the other companies have their products ready to market as soon as the FCC gives the go-ahead, which is expected this fall.

Apple has been discussing the idea for the past few years, and officially petitioned the FCC to create a National Information Infrastructure Band last May. In announcing the plan, the FCC stressed the altruistic goals of linking schools, libraries and health-care providers, alluding to Vice President Al Gore's vision of the information superhighway. In addition, the agency said the use of the spectrum would encourage new businesses and would be a boon to technological innovation.

FCC Commissioner Susan Ness pointed to other unlicensed devices that have had an impact on American citizens: Cordless telephones, garage door openers, alarm systems and baby monitors. "Today's notice heralds a new generation of unlicensed devices with great potential for innovation, economic growth and international trade," Ness said.

Throughout the process, Nagel has said that Apple does not want a monopoly on providing such service and does not want an exclusive license. Using spectrum for Internet transmission, said Nagel, shows that there does not have to be a wall between mobility and networking.

Wiring is also expensive. Some parts of the United States are too remote to be wired. Nagel pointed out that because many schools have asbestos in their walls, they cannot be connected by cable even if they could afford it.

Nagel's proposal suggests that spectrum remain a free public resource. "There is no need to divide the band between competing applicants -- any innovator is free at any time to design and sell compliant products for use in the band," said Nagel. The FCC plans to come out with final rules by fall. Still, allocating free spectrum is a departure for the auction-loving FCC. Companies using the spectrum simply would have to prove the airwaves are used efficiently and meet certain technical standards to avoid interference with other uses. That's a pretty good deal by Apple's, or anyone's standards, especially the PCS C-block bidders, who are now shelling out a lot of money for a chance to ride the airwaves. n

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