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Senior Editor

Senators want to expand wireless spectrum

Jan 17, 20033 mins
GovernmentNetwork Security

WASHINGTON – Two U.S. senators have asked the Federal Communications Commission to expand the wireless spectrum in hope of increasing demand for wireless devices, although at least one analyst questions whether the legislation will accomplish that goal.

The Jumpstart Broadband Act, introduced this week by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), would add an additional 255 MHz to the 5 GHz radio spectrum band, where wireless connections based on the IEEE 802.11a standard are available.

Most wireless devices work with another wireless standard, 802.11b, but its 2.4 GHz band is also getting cluttered with noise from other devices such as cordless phones. The advantage of 802.11a is that it transfers data at up to 54M bit/sec, compared to 802.11b’s 11M bit/sec. Its disadvantage is that it has only about a quarter of the wireless range of 802.11b, which extends 300 feet from a network node.

The senators argue the expansion of the 802.11a spectrum could spur more companies to offer high-speed wireless services and devices. The result could be a boon to the struggling telecommunications industry, Allen said.

“Our hope with this legislation is to increase consumer demand of broadband devices and stimulate the telecom and technology sectors, as well as the overall economy,” Allen said during a Senate telecommunications committee hearing earlier this week.

But Brian Tolly, senior engineer and analyst with networking consultancy The Tolly Group in Manasquan, N.J., believes widespread adoption of the 802.11a standard is a ways off. Most Internet-ready wireless devices now have built-in 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, cards, he said, and 802.11a’s limited range makes it more expensive to deploy in large corporate settings.

“I don’t see a mass exodus from the current installed base,” Tolly added.

Tom Nolle, president of CIMI, a networking consulting firm in Voorhees, N.J., disagreed, saying the Senate bill should spark consumer demand for high-speed Internet services.

The faster 802.11a wireless standard is ideal for transferring large video or music files, and is likely to be used to network devices such as television sets and stereos into home computer networks, he added. With this expansion of the 802.11a spectrum, TV and stereo makers will have an incentive to build wireless cards into their devices, Nolle said.

A continuing problem with all 802.11 signals is security. A neighbor or someone driving by can easily tap into a wireless signal, meaning home users can be crowded out of their own networks. The expanded spectrum in the Senate bill would multiply the number of potential simultaneous 802.11a users in a highly populated area by 400% to 500%, meaning an individual user is less likely to have his signal stolen, Nolle said.

While Nolle acknowledged 802.11a’s limited range could hinder its adoption in corporate settings, it’s perfect for home users, and it could help the struggling telecommunications industry with home broadband sales, he said.

“Limited range is not a bad thing,” he added. “In the best of all possible worlds, you’d like Wi-Fi to go as far as the doorway of the building, but not any farther.”