The War Over WiFi: Pentagon, Industry Agree to an Armistice

The Pentagon announced over the weekend it reached a compromise with the wireless industry that clears the way for increasing the amount of spectrum for Wi-Fi-related products. In exchange for getting the Pentagon to drop its objections to sharing space with unlicensed products, the wireless industry agreed to install technology in future devices that will detect and avoid interference with military radar installations.

In December of last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began proceedings that could ultimately result in doubling the available spectrum for high-speed wireless local networks. Although it had yet to show that Wi-Fi devices interfered with military devices, the Department of Defense feared the low-powered, unlicensed emissions might possibly interfere with up to 10 types of radar operated by the Pentagon.

The FCC proposal, which could take up to year for approval, would permit unlicensed transmitters to operate in additional frequencies below 900 MHz and in the 3 GHz band. Known as Wi-Fi or 802.11, wireless networks provide connectivity up to approximately 300 feet and are considered ideal for home and office use. Last year, the popularity of these networks showed strong growth and, in turn, demand for spectrum space for the networks has increased.

Two months ago, tech bellwethers AT&T, Intel, and IBM pooled their resources behind a new company, Coemta Networks, that will offer wholesale nationwide wireless Internet access. The company — backed by investment concerns Apax Partners and 3i — will leverage its backers’ technology to sell services to telcos, ISPS, cable operators and wireless carriers, which will then be able to offer their customers broadband wireless Internet access.

Cometa’s vision is to allow every Internet user in the U.S. to access their existing accounts wirelessly, anywhere in the United States, without changing their accounts or service providers. End-users will be able to keep existing sign-on procedures, e-mail addresses, IDs, passwords and payment methods regardless of the access point, whether its an ISP, corporate VPN, telecommunications provider or cable operator.

For service providers, it will mean the ability to offer wireless services to their customers without having to invest in the wireless infrastructure themselves. All of which will require more spectrum, most of it previously jealously guarded by the military.

Friday’s compromise with the military also increases the prospects of the Jumpstart Broadband Act introduced in the Senate by George Allen (R.-Va.) and Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.). The bill calls for the FCC to allocate not less than 255 megahertz of contiguous spectrum in the 5 gigahertz band for unlicensed use by wireless broadband devices.

Allen and Boxer claim the innovations and advances in the development of unlicensed wireless, radio-based networks offer an additional means of delivering data at high speed and also allow new business models for delivering broadband connectivity to emerge.

“The goal of the Jumpstart Broadband Act is to create an environment that embraces innovation and encourages the adoption of next-generation wireless broadband Internet devices,” Allen said in introducing the bill to the Senate. “Most importantly, our legislation will build confidence among consumers, investors and innovators in the telecommunications and technology industries to eventually make the broadband dream a reality.”

Allen said the “if you build it, they will come” business model has not materialized for the telecommunications industry and is one of the reasons for the current telecom recession, adding that “fanciful expectations like these have left this country with Internet bandwidth capacities that no levels of demand can sustain.”

He said the bill is designed to get Congress to rethink the broadband distribution debate. In the 107th Congress, the debate over broadband primarily focused only on two platforms, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and cable and the regulatory treatment of those services.

“This perspective fails to consider that alternative modes or other technologies are available that can jumpstart consumer-driven investment and demand in broadband services,” Allen said. “I think it is beneficial to shift the policy discussion away from this debate and focus on something positive Congress can do that fosters innovation, stimulates the technology and telecom sectors, and encourages the adoption of broadband services.”

Allen added, “Over this past few years Congress, and specifically the Senate, have been locked in debate over the best approach to promote and encourage widespread broadband adoption. There is no doubt that consumers, businesses and government officials fully recognize the importance of broadband to our communications capabilities and the economy. Indeed, the proliferation of next-generation broadband Internet connections will reinvigorate growth in the technology and telecommunications industries and improve our lives.”