December 17, 2002
Limits Sought on Wireless Internet Access
By JOHN MARKOFF
SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 16 — The Defense Department, arguing that an increasingly popular form of wireless Internet access could interfere with military radar, is seeking new limits on the technology, which is seen as a rare bright spot for the communications industry.
Industry executives, including representatives from Microsoft and Intel, met last week with Defense Department officials to try to stave off that effort, which includes a government proposal now before the global overseer of radio frequencies.
The military officials say the technical restrictions they are seeking are necessary for national security. Industry executives, however, say they would threaten expansion of technology like the so-called WiFi systems being used for wireless Internet in American airports, coffee shops, homes and offices.
WiFi use is increasingly heavy in major American metropolitan areas, and similar systems are becoming popular in Europe and Asia. As the technology is installed in millions of portable computers and in antennas in many areas, industry executives acknowledge that high-speed wireless Internet access will soon crowd the radio frequencies used by the military. But industry executives say new types of frequency spectrum sharing techniques could keep civilian users from interfering with radar systems.
The debate, which involves low-power radio emissions that the Defense Department says may jam as many as 10 types of radar systems in use by United States military forces, presents a thorny policy issue for the Bush administration.
Even as the armed forces monitor United States air space for signs of military or terrorist attacks and gear up for a possible war with Iraq, the nation's technology companies hope that the popularity of wireless Internet access will help pull their industry out of its two-year slump. New limits on that technology could help undermine the economic recovery on which the administration is also pinning its hopes.
"Nobody, including the Pentagon, doubts that this is important for consumers and industry," said Steven Price, deputy assistant secretary of defense for radio spectrum matters. "The problem comes when it degrades our military capabilities."
So far, though, there have been no reports of civilian wireless Internet use interfering with military radar, Edmond Thomas, chief of the office of engineering and technology for the Federal Communications Commission, said.
Industry executives say that military uses can coexist with the millions of smart wireless Internet devices that can sense the nearby use of military radar and automatically yield the right of way. These devices are in use in Europe and will soon be used in the United States.
But Pentagon officials say that the new digital technologies are unproven and could interfere with various types of military radar systems, whether ones used for tracking storms, monitoring aircraft or guiding missiles and other weapons.
The Pentagon wants regulators to delay consideration of opening an additional swath of radio frequencies in the 5-gigahertz band that is eagerly sought by American technology companies and is already in civilian use internationally.
In this country, industry executives and some members of Congress see new spectrum-sharing technologies as a way to jump-start innovation and commerce. Last month, for example, Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, and her Republican colleague Senator George Allen of Virginia, said that they would introduce a bill in the next session of Congress to expand the radio spectrum available for wireless Internet use.
The military-industry debate also involves the merits of a technical standard known as dynamic frequency selection, which is being used by advanced wireless Internet radios overseas to avoid interference.
Military officials are asking the American industry, and companies in other countries, to create and install even more sensitive versions of dynamic frequency selection — something that the companies say may cause the technology to operate incorrectly. American executives say that the military's demands may also curtail the capacity of wireless Internet services and could even force a complicated redesign of millions of computer communications systems already in place or nearly ready for shipment.
An estimated 16 million WiFi-enabled computers and other devices are already in use in this country and overseas. And in the coming year, Intel plans to put currently designed WiFi technology on all of the microprocessor chips it ships for tens of millions of desktop, laptop and hand-held computing devices.
"This is a hugely important issue to Intel," said Peter Pitsch, Intel's communications policy director in Washington. "I'm hopeful at the end of the day, the U. S. government will accept a reasonable compromise."
The dispute may also foreshadow a coming battle over the airwaves as traditional broadcasters and communications businesses like cellular companies confront a dazzling array of new digital communications technologies that can potentially use the spectrum far more efficiently by permitting it to be shared by different types of users.
The roots of the dispute lie in an effort that began during the Clinton administration and which has continued at the Federal Communications Commission under the current administration, to permit civilian use of portions of the airwaves without licenses.
"The unlicensed spectrum is a hot-bed of entrepreneurial activity and one of the few bright spots in our high-tech economy," said Tom Kalil, the former deputy director of President Bill Clinton's National Economic Council and an early advocate of unlicensed spectrum of radio frequencies. The Bush administration, he said, "should be trying to increase the amount of spectrum for unlicensed devices, as opposed to imposing new, retroactive restrictions right as the market is taking off."
Earlier this month, the United States presented the Pentagon position at an international technical meeting in Geneva of the World Administrative Radio Conference, the body that oversees radio frequency allocations and standards.
European governments hotly disputed the United States position at the meeting, but it was nonetheless included as a footnote in the planning document that resulted. The issues will be confronted directly, and perhaps decided, in June at the World Administrative Radio Conference in Geneva.
Industry officials said that the Defense Department position had little chance of gaining international support. As a consequence, they said, the existing radio bands would probably become more congested, and the Pentagon would face even more sources of interference internationally.
There is a need for global coordination, executives acknowledge, but they say the Defense Department is going about it the wrong way.
"The idea is to get the world on a single page, and Europe is way ahead of the U. S. in understanding these interference issues," said Rich Redelfs, president and chief executive of Atheros, a Silicon Valley maker of chips used for WiFi systems.