What’s Brewin: Let the Spectrum Games Begin

700 Megahertz: How Sweet It Is

On Oct. 22, 190 nations will gather in Geneva for the quadrennial World Radiocommunication Conference, which allocates global radio frequency spectrum. Richard Russell, the U.S. ambassador to the conference, describes it as the Spectrum Olympics.

Russell, associate director for technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that while the WRC is as competitive as the Olympics, its goal is harmony. In this case, that refers to the harmonization of global spectrum allocations that will support the rollout of advanced communications services, while at the same time protecting existing ones.

This includes carving out spectrum worldwide for new, advanced broadband wireless services, which Russell said is one of the key issues the United States will be considering at the conference.

Heading into the conference, the United States has lined up widespread international support to use the 700 megahertz band for fourth-generation mobile wireless services, Russell said. And if that frequency band gets a global allocation, it would mean users globally would be able to use just one device anywhere in the world to tap into the new broadband services.

The 700 MHz band will be freed for mobile use in the United States when television broadcasters switch to a digital format in 2009. So, the band is a real sweet spot for mobile broadband because it penetrates buildings and cars better than higher frequencies.

The United States has a big enough market to support development of mobile broadband technology on its own in the 700 MHz band, Russell said, but if that spectrum was adopted globally at the WRC, it would lead to even greater economies of scale, which would result in lower prices for users and would serve as a boon to manufacturers.

Other spectrum bands under consideration for advanced mobile broadband at the WRC include frequencies in the 410 to 430 MHz band, which Russell said the United States opposes because those are used in this country by mobile radio systems operated by a wide variety of users, including those at the Defense Department and other government agencies.

The United States also wants to avoid any allocation of spectrum in the 3.4 to 4.2 gigahertz band to advanced mobile services because that band is widely used by Defense radar systems and commercial satellite carriers. The Navy uses this commercial satellite spectrum to provide broadband voice, video and data services to aircraft carriers, large amphibious ships and command ships.

Sprint Nextel, Wimax and the China Card

The other key issue for the U.S. delegation at the WRC is ensuring that the 2.5 GHz band used by Sprint Nextel and other carriers for broadband wireless services, and planned for launch this year, are not subject to interference by satellite systems that are either in operation or planned, Russell said.

South Korea uses that band for mobile satellite television services, Russell said, and China plans to use the 2.5 GHz band for satellites. He did not predict how countries will resolve this issue at the WRC, but much like an Olympic coach sizing up the competition, he said he viewed the Chinese team as "an exceptionally skilled delegation."

The Beeb vs. the Navy

Shortwave broadcasters such as the BBC and Defense users such as the Navy will battle at the WRC over spectrum used for high-frequency communications in the 4 to 10 MHz bands, Russell said.

The broadcasters want to use this band to replace their scratchy and noisy analog broadcasts with a new digital service that will provide near FM-radio quality. But the Navy wants to use HF bands - underutilized since the demise of Morse code - to support the broadcast of data over new IP-based services at far less cost than sending data by satellite.

Russell said that except for the European Union, countries are heading into the WRC aligned with the U.S. position to not allow an expansion of shortwave broadcasting in the HF band.

Shh, We're Watching the Earth

Another item on the WRC 2007 agenda is ensuring that the 36 to 37 GHz band, used by weather satellites and remote sensing satellites, is kept free from interference, Russell said. These are passive satellites, he said, and need to be protected against interference from active higher powered birds.

The EU is with the United States on this one, saying that these Earth exploration bands should be kept interference free.

Bush on Spectrum

Sometimes it's good to let the president have the last word, so I will.

President Bush mentioned spectrum in a speech at the Commerce Department in 2004, and it is still relevant today: "The spectrum that allows for wireless technology is a limited resource. . . . and we need to use it wisely . . . without, by the way, crowding out important government functions."

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