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Wireless Enterprises Position for Spectrum

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Because parts of the wireless spectrum are under review this year, companies with heavy interests in wireless data transfer are approaching the government with renewed fervor.

Intel , Microsoft , Atheros and a host of other firms gathered at Intel's headquarters here Monday as part of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) public forum. The Commerce Department is holding the meetings following President Bush's call in June 2003 for a yearlong review of spectrum use by the government and the private sector. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates non-government use of spectrum, is also playing a role in the spectrum review.

The meetings were convened to discuss better ways to manage the nation's airwaves, but the issue has become more political than technical. Each company spent at least 10 minutes pitching its own products and advancements hoping to curry favor with the U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC). The companies are chipping away at both sides of the spectrum, including the low-end (700MHz) as well as the higher 5GHz frequencies, to make sure their slice of the pie is as large as possible.

DoC Acting Assistant Secretary Michael Gallagher said the Department's goal is to create a modernized spectrum system; create incentives for better use of spectrum; develop policy tools for deployment; and address national security and homeland security.

"And when the department was given a choice between national security and economic security, Secretary Evans said, 'Do both,'" Gallagher said. "Spectrum is the rocket fuel that will drive innovation in this space, and I look forward to the high-octane solutions that will come as a result of these forums."

The challenge for enterprise, however, has been the "incumbent" players in the space, including the government, broadcast television and cellular carriers, which are getting hard pressed to give up their assets.

"One thing I've learned in this industry since I've been onboard is that companies see two kinds of spectrum use... mine, which is good, and everything else... which is bad," Gallagher said. "The status of spectrum policy was deadlocked when we arrived, and the Terror Tax looked to make it worse. I'm pleased to say we proved them wrong."

Gallagher pointed to the successes of underlying technologies such as ultra wideband (UWB) as one way the government is rethinking the current spectrum. Other areas of consideration include the 700MHz frequencies, which are currently populated by broadcast stations that are migrating to digital signals.

Microsoft Chief of Incubation Pierre de Vries said the addition of the low end of the spectrum would be perfect for Internet data transfer, despite the frequency being somewhat "piecemeal" and without a critical mass.

"Lower frequencies equal better coverage," de Vries said. "The frequency means more range in rural to medium dense areas, more uniform coverage and better indoor penetration. It is to some extent a chicken and egg situation, where we are asking to help the government clear the spectrum, and we will rebuild the spectrum. The idea is to develop point-to-multi-point frequencies. I think development of the 700MHz spectrum is best, because there has been no incentive to develop at this level, and the economics of the other standards have challenges."

Still, the opposite end of the spectrum is being touted as a more viable alternative. Last May, the FCC published a proposal to double the amount of spectrum available for wireless data services in the 5-Ghz band. San Francisco-based Vivato as well as the University of California, Berkeley are separately exploring work in this area with a combination of antenna and CMOS components.

Vivato CTO Siavish Alamouti said he'd like regulators to remove a couple of his barriers. The company wants them to consider a category called "smart" devices; treat multi-user systems similar to multiple co-located devices; and consider preferential treatment for standards that encourage smart devices.

"Our obstacle is that current rules regulate devices, not systems," Alamouti said. "A hypothetical 10-watt unit that could replace thousands of 1-watt units could not be certified under current rules."

Either way, more and more chip-making companies like Intel and Atheros are approaching the problem from the inside out. Each company is fastidiously adding radio components to its silicon processors. Intel, for example, is working hard at developing the IEEE 802.16 (WiMAX) standard for silicon as well as developing cognitive radio, interference temperatures. Atheros CEO Craig Barratt said his company are combining the MAC, baseband processor, and 2.4 GHz radio on a single chip

Gallagher said the issue comes down to the government being flexible with the policies it adopts as the administration has put stopgap measures in place to avoid interfering with systems that are always in place. The other consideration under review at the DoC is what Gallagher called "technical trust," in that the government needs to be able to know the systems are secure and in place.

"It's a political exercise as well as a technical exercise," he said. "The old wounds come back when we talk about revising the spectrum rules. We're looking to enterprise to help bridge the gap with the government, and the trust that is built plants the seeds for the next one."

The Commerce Department has scheduled a forum on April 1 to discuss the current and potential uses of sensor technologies such as RFID by both industry and government.



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