Wireless Wideband Tests Concern Airline Industry

FRAMINGHAM (07/28/2000) - The airline industry is concerned that a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow limited testing of ultrawideband (UWB) devices could pose threats to "safety of life" navigation systems.

Championed by Time Domain Corp. in Huntsville, Ala., UWB has the potential to transmit "megabits of information at microwatts of power" over the airwaves, according to Ralph Petroff, Time Domain's chairman.

UWB derives this broadband capability by spreading its signals over a wide swath of frequencies, including those used by aircraft Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation systems and radar systems operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

UWB devices are short-range, high-powered transmitters used for applications like wireless LANs.

The FCC's decision earlier this month to permit limited testing of UWB gear by Time Domain and two other companies could eventually "open the floodgates" to widespread use of UWB in the airlines' "safety of life bands," according to James Miller, a senior staff specialist for flight operations technology at Chicago-based United Air Lines Inc.

Chris Hutchison, director of frequency management at Annapolis, Md.-based Arinc Inc. - a global communications company that provides service to the airline industry and is owned cooperatively by the industry - echoed those concerns. He said that if the FCC eventually authorizes widespread use of UWB devices, it could lead to the proliferation of wireless networks in "the tens of thousands in a major metropolitan area," operating without any safeguards in the aircraft navigation bands.

United and Dallas-based American Airlines Inc. had asked the FCC to permit UWB testing only with the provision that any such devices include "notch filters" that prevent them from operating in the GPS band. The FCC dismissed those concerns and permitted limited tests by Time Domain and two other firms.

Joe Canny, who oversees spectrum policy issues in the office of the secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the limited tests authorized by the FCC "are not anything of great significance" and should help provide the data necessary to study the effect of the devices on aircraft navigation systems. Canny noted, however, that UWB devices do pose "potential issues of conflict with GPS as well as FAA radars and a variety of other FAA systems." He said his office is "currently doing our own testing and analysis because we have concerns about flight safety issues."

Jeff Ross, vice president of corporate development and strategy at Time Domain, dismissed the concerns of the airline industry, saying that the low power of UWB devices shouldn't cause interference.

"Each of these devices puts out less than 50 milliwatts of power," Ross said.

"If you put all 2,500 devices the FCC authorized for testing in one room, you would have a [total] power output [equal to] the output of a cell phone, which is half a watt."

Once the proposed testing is completed later this year, the FCC will draft formal rules on widespread use - a proceeding in which United, Arinc and the Transportation Department say they definitely intend to participate.

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