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Lawmakers Move to Make FCC Allow Broader Wireless Net

by Catherine Komp

Feb. 22, 2006 – Typically costing $30-50 a month, high speed internet access remains out of financial reach for many people in the US. But advocates for more affordable Internet access hope that new legislation will eventually lead to lower prices.

Hailed by consumer advocates and progressive media activists, the Wireless Innovation (Winn) Act of 2006 would open up additional public spectrum for wireless Internet use.

The Winn Act, introduced by Senator George Allen (R-Virginia), would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to release unused or unassigned parts of the broadcast spectrum, also known as "white spaces," for wireless computer networking use. The bill is co-sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-California), John Sununu (R-New Hampshire) and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts). A similar bill, the American Broadband for Communities Act, was also introduced last week by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Arkansas).

"Instead of just talking about it, we need to make affordable broadband a reality everywhere," Kerry said in a statement.

The Winn Act would require the FCC to permit unlicensed use of unassigned broadcast spectrum between 54MHz and 698 MHz within 180 days of enactment. This part of the spectrum is generally used by television broadcasters, and the unused portions between TV channels broadcasting in a given area is known as "white space."

Supporters of the bills say that liberating "white spaces" – which constitute half or more of the spectrum in many places – will decrease the number of antennas needed to cover an area, potentially reducing costs even while providing faster data-transmission speeds.

According to the media-focused activist organization Free Press, the 108 Mhz part of the spectrum is key in expanding wireless internet service to rural areas because it allows signals to penetrate obstacles, like walls and mountains, and to move long distances.

Consumer groups also praise the legislation, saying that too many people have little or no choice in high-speed providers or have been left without access altogether. They believe the bill will advance more competition in a market that is mainly controlled by telephone and cable giants.

"Without broadband Internet access and other wireless services, Americans in rural and underserved urban areas will continue to be stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide," wrote Jeannie Kelley of the Consumers Union and Ben Scott of Free Press in a letter to Senator Allen.

Though the bills have many supporters, some broadcasting organizations are staunchly opposed and have argued that studies looking at possible interference issues have not been conclusive. In testimony before the FCC, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) said that unlicensed use of the spectrum will cause "harmful interference" to TV broadcasters.

But critics respond that this is a tactic to "warehouse" spectrum that TV broadcasters will later claim for their own use. They note that the NAB led the fight to prevent low-power radio stations from gaining access to unused spectrum on the FM band, using the same claim about terrible interference. The NAB then helped to develop digital radio technology that allowed FM broadcasters to double their spectrum capacity.

Wireless broadband allows Internet service providers to set up relatively inexpensive "nodes" that can each communicate through the air with dozens of computers at once – all without the costly infrastructure associated with cable and telephone networks.

Whether or not this federal initiative is successful, a growing number of cities are taking their own steps to establish municipal wireless systems, often waging difficult battles with telecommunications companies determined to maintain control over broadband connections. Philadelphia is the furthest along in its efforts to offer discounted wireless Internet access to anyone living in or visiting the city, sealing a deal with Earthlink last year to provide service over a 135-square mile area.

San Francisco; Chicago; Houston, Suffolk County, NY; Dayton, Ohio and others have also announced plans to establish citywide wireless initiatives. And after the destruction of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the city of New Orleans was the first in the US to set up free wireless, owned and operated by the city. Currently, it is only available in limited neighborhoods, but Mayor Ray Nagin expects it to reach the entire city in a year.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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