New Communications Services To Be Mined on Airwaves Frontier
Jan. 30, 1996
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal regulators are preparing for a new wave of high-tech devices with a range of possibilities _ from warning drivers of trouble ahead to helping people do things around the house without leaving their easy chairs.
The Federal Communications Commission is unlocking a vast, virtually unused portion of the public airwaves to make these and other, not yet imagined commercial services available.
It began in a little-noticed action last month as the FCC began delving in the segment of the public airwaves known in telecommunications lingo as millimeter waves.
Technically, the frequencies are located above 40 gigahertz _ far past frequencies used for television, radio and cellular phones.
``That's where the virgin territory is,'' said Mike Marcus, the FCC's associate chief of technology.
The frequencies have extremely limited use compared with other frequencies. The waves can travel only short distances _ about half a mile on a clear day _ but can carry lots of information, including voice, video and data.
Largely because of these limitations, companies for many years have had little interest in using the frequencies.
Advances in technology have changed that. General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T and Apple are among companies exploring ways to apply the frequencies to new services and devices.
``I think this is very definitely something that is going to be important to the marketplace and to people in their daily life,'' AT&T government affairs director Frank Mathewson said.
According to information supplied by the companies to the FCC and described in interviews, possible uses include:
_Radar systems for cars to alert drivers to potential collisions. General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp. and VORAD Safety Systems Inc. have filed comments with the FCC expressing interest in using millimeter wave technology in such a way.
_Wireless systems to make homes ``smart'' by controlling appliances, heating and cooling, security systems.
_High-capacity wireless links to connect computers within an office or communications systems from building to nearby building.
_Wireless links to connect phones, pagers and other communications devices throughout a college campus or airport.
_Video conferencing, telecommuting and transmitting to doctors and institutions detailed medical information including images and X-rays.
Some of the ideas are not necessarily novel but are noteworthy because they harness frequencies without commercial uses before now. Company executives also believe they will be able to offer high-speed data transmissions and other similar services more cheaply than companies using different technology.
``The exciting thing is not what companies are thinking about now but what it might make available in the future,'' said Cynthia Johnson, government affairs director for Hewlett-Packard.
Executives of these companies say making the new technology available will take at least five more years.
The only current uses for millimeter waves are by radio astronomers, who use a few mostly for weather observation, and by the military.
On Dec. 15 the FCC made available 6.2 gigahertz for new technologies on an unlicensed basis. That means that, unlike cellular telephone customers, buyers of devices that use this spectrum will not be tethered to a particular company for service.
In addition to traveling only short distances, millimeter waves have other disadvantages, the FCC says. They're susceptible to interference from rain, snow, hail and fog, and they don't penetrate walls very well.
But they have advantages. They can carry at the same time vast amounts of voice, video and data. Signals are extremely accurate and can move data rapidly at speeds of 5 gigabits per second, a speed currently achievable only by using fiber optic cable. Also, the signals yield good picture quality.
The signals can be picked up on small receivers with four- to five-inch antennae, a plus for customers who don't want clunky equipment in their homes, offices or cars. But FCC engineers warn that equipment costs are likely to be high.