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GOVERNMENT PLANS WIRELESS ROLE FOR INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY

WASHINGTON – The structure of the wireless telecommunications industry will be in a constant state of flux for the near future due to evolving regulatory, technological and economic changes, according to a new government report.

Nevertheless, according to Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment, the role of wireless technology in the National Information Infrastructure – the network of networks also called the information superhighway – is expected to be significant but in ways not yet fully understood.

The OTA study, which was requested by senior House Commerce Committee member Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, and the House Science Committee, recommends that in light of this uncertainty federal government intervention should be limited to three broad functions:

Monitor the growth of the industry and competition, and identify any potential market failures or social concerns that arise.

Continue to pursue policies that promote open access to all networks, including goal-setting and encouraging industry standardization efforts.

Promote development of new technologies, including ensuring the availability of adequate spectrum for existing and emerging wireless technologies.

An overarching contribution of wireless technologies will be extending the reach of the NII to places wireline technologies cannot go, OTA stated. In the early formation of the NII concept, the impact of wireless was largely ignored. But that has changed.

OTA said that in addition to mobility, the paging, cellular, personal communications services, specialized mobile radio and mobile satellite sectors will bring competition to the NII.

Certain factors may determine the extent of wireless influence in the NII, the report stated, such as how Congress defines universal service in telecommunications reform legislation.

If lawmakers limit universal service to essential narrowband digital voice and data services, according to the OTA, wireless technologies could provide a cost-effective alternative to landline telephone service for low-income and rural Americans. However, if universal service is required to include broadband data, video and multimedia functionalities, wireless will be eclipsed by wireline systems in the NII.

A fundamental question raised by OTA is whether the wireless industry will be as big as hyped predictions. In that regard, OTA cites concerns of analysts who question whether the market can support all the various wireless communications providers of paging, cellular, PCS, SMR and MSS.

In addition, OTA said it is still unclear what services customers want and what they’re willing to pay for them?

“Without this understanding, setting specific, long-term policies for NII services is likely to be premature,” said OTA.

On the other hand, OTA added, “Because most policymakers and industry representatives believe it would be inappropriate for the federal government to pick technology `winners and losers,’ regulators also must avoid enacting policies that inadvertently have the same effect.”

The wireless industry is still relatively young. The cellular and SMR sectors are just more than a decade old. Paging has been around a bit longer, while the mobile satellite industry is still in its infancy. Demand for wireless services is growing every year, though.

OTA recommends continuation of long-term spectrum planning and spectrum reforms, two activities the embattled National Telecommunications and Information Administration has taken up in recent years. OTA also calls for research on the social, economic and public health implications of widespread, long-term use of wireless services.

In addition, policymakers are encouraged to develop a mechanism to address jurisdictional disputes among state, local and federal regulators.

A sterling example of this dilemma is seen in lobbying by commercial wireless carriers to have Congress limit local zoning authority over the anticipated siting of 100,000 PCS antennas.

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