U.S. Prepares for Spectrum Battle with EU

FRAMINGHAM (05/05/2000) - The 180-member nations of the International Telecommunications Union start a month-long conference next week in Istanbul to carve up portions of the radio frequency spectrum, with the U.S. and countries of the European Union sharply opposed on several key issues, including designation of the expansion bandwidth needed to support next-generation, wideband mobile wireless services.

The U.S. delegation to the ITU World Radio Conference also anticipates it will have to defend the spectrum required for new civil frequencies for Global Positioning System from incursions by the Galileo satellite navigation system now in the early stages of development by the EU.

Mobile satellite system operators would also like to use the same spectrum for global wireless service.

While the EU, and its red-hot mobile communications suppliers, would like to reach resolution on allocation of new spectrum at the ITU conference, the U.S. delegation would prefer "to kick the can down the road," according to one delegation member, who asked not to be identified. "Our position is that we would like to study the issues - and proposed spectrum allocations - for a while," this member of the U.S. delegation replied. Asked how long this study should go on, the official replied, "a year or two."

The Personal Communications Industry Association, an Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group, would like the U.S. to leave the conference with an agreement on future spectrum divisions, according to Harold Salters, PIA director of government relations.

"Any substantial delay would hurt the competitiveness of the U.S. third generation (wireless) market.... If there's not agreement, the U.S. and the rest of the world could end up on different bands," Salters said. This could lead to a continuation of the problem that exists today for U.S. cell-phone users, who with rare exceptions, find they can't use their phones when they travel abroad, he added.

The battle for invisible, but highly valuable real estate, also finds the supposedly unified U.S. delegation taking divergent positions on whether a key portion of the spectrum currently used by fixed wireless operators in the U.S.

- the 2,500-MHz to 2,690MHz band - should be opened up to mobile users.

"The Europeans really want that band badly for next-generation mobile services,'' the U.S. delegate said.

MCI WorldCom Inc. in Jackson Mississippi, and Sprint Corp. in Kansas City, Missouri, have both spent millions of dollars acquiring licenses in that band and plan to spend millions of dollars more to install the systems to operate in it.

A Pentagon official familiar with spectrum issues said the U.S. Department of Defense has tacitly backed the opening of discussions at WRC to permit mobile operations in the current U.S. fixed wireless band because DoD leadership believes spectrum expansion should not always come at its expense.

Andrew Kreig, president of the Wireless Communications Association in Washington, which represents the fixed wireless carriers, including MCI and Sprint, said, "our tilt at the ITU conference is towards preserving fixed wireless capabilities in that band. It is extremely difficult to have mobile and fixed operations share the same band, in the same country."

Bob Egan, vice president and research director, mobile and wireless of Gartner Group Inc. in Stanford, Conn., said if the EU designates the 2,500-2,690 as a mobile wireless band and the U.S. decides to retain it as a fixed wireless band, this could drive up costs for the U.S. fixed wireless operators, as manufacturers will be producing equipment tuned for just the U.S. market.

Members of the U.S delegation said that they don't expect any of these issues to be resolved until the last week of May.

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