The Bush administration is falling behind in an ambitious effort to deliver airwaves for high-speed, wireless Internet access and other advanced services.
In the process, the administration has managed to turn the educational establishment and the military into bitter rivals.
As Europe and Asia push ahead with high-speed wireless networks, the mobile-phone industry fears that a planned government auction of airwaves this year might be postponed until at least 2003.
Congress mandated in 1997 that the airwaves that carry television channels 52 to 69 be sold this September. The Bush administration is trying to push the date back in the belief that the airwaves will attract higher bids when they are no longer encumbered by broadcasters, who face a 2006 deadline for moving.
That spectrum alone, however, is not enough to accommodate all the demand for advanced wireless communication--called 3G, for third generation. By the end of this month, federal regulators will make recommendations on which two other bands will also be auctioned to the wireless industry: one that schools use for wireless networking and educational television or one that the military uses for defense operations.
Educators and the military are lobbying furiously to keep from being dislodged. The wireless industry worries that the controversy could significantly postpone its access to new airwaves for the next generation of wireless services. That could put the U.S. further behind Asia and Europe, which have already awarded frequencies for the next generation.
Steven K. Berry, a lobbyist at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assn. in Washington, said dislodging one group of users from the spectrum and establishing other users in its place was an expensive, time-consuming process.
The fight over advanced wireless communications represents a crucial challenge for the Bush administration. The world's nearly 500 million wireless subscribers are projected to nearly triple to 1.3 billion in 2005--creating a $561-billion market in high-speed wireless Internet devices.
Although existing wireless phones can provide wireless Internet access, the process is slow and cumbersome.
By contrast, third-generation technology promises to more than quadruple current transmission speeds. That will allow users to watch video, surf the Internet faster and even get instantaneous navigational information such as the location of nearby restaurants or gas stations.
3G devices aren't on the market yet. And since anyone--not just phone companies--can bid for 3G airwaves, advanced mobile devices could take unfamiliar forms.
But most experts, predicting the phone companies will win a majority of the 3G spectrum, expect typical units to be modeled after cell phones. Deft engineering will be necessary to make a pocket-size device versatile enough to show videos, display electronic road maps, answer e-mail and surf the Internet.
Before the government can usher new users onto the spectrum designated for wireless, it will have to get the existing occupants--TV broadcasters who use the spectrum to air TV shows--to switch to new digital channels the government awarded station owners three years ago.
Congress has given the broadcasters until 2006 to abandon their old airwaves, which will be put up for sale to wireless bidders. But station owners have indicated they are unlikely to abide by that timetable.
The government will also have to dislodge either the military from airwaves it uses for defense operations or schools, churches and commercial users from airwaves over which they provide wireless networking and educational TV broadcasting.
This pits two of President Bush's key constituencies--education and the military--against each other. Both are lobbying the government.
"To move us would be disruptive of programs that have gone on for 30 years, and we would lose our commercial partners" who are helping to develop the spectrum, said David G. Moore, director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He said the Catholic Church and its commercial partners have spent more than $15 million during the last decade to develop educational TV, broadband wireless and other applications used by Catholic schools in the city.
The Pentagon is just as adamant about staying put. Relinquishing its airwaves, defense officials say, would compromise military operations and national security.
The Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department are working together to sort out the competing claims and decide which group will be forced to move. They are expected to issue their recommendations by March 30.
The actual sale of the airwaves would not come for two years or more. And experts say it could take until 2006 or even 2010 for schools or the military to vacate the airwaves for wireless use.
But European companies last year spent $100 billion to acquire airwaves for 3G services. And U.S. carriers, such as Sprint Corp. and Verizon Wireless, are poised to introduce higher-speed wireless services in several American markets this summer.
The current demand for existing wireless Internet access "far exceeds our expectations," said Sprint spokesman Dan Wilinsky. He said that about 10% of Sprint's cell phone subscribers--or 1 million users--regularly e-mail or surf the Web using Sprint's wireless Internet service, which has been available for only about a year. Half of them signed up specifically for the service and pay a flat monthly fee for it; the others pay per usage.
Commerce Secretary Don Evans told the Senate Commerce Committee in January that he was eager to pave the way for 3G technology. And President Bush remains supportive of 3G, officials say.