Satellite pay-radio firms spar with Wi-Fi supporters

Two start-up satellite pay-radio operators have asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to sharply limit emissions from wireless LANs, Bluetooth short-range wireless devices and fixed wireless systems that operate in the unlicensed 2.4GHz band directly adjacent to their 2.3GHz licensed spectrum.

The satellite radio operators are betting their petition will succeed at the FCC because the commission’s rules are designed to prevent interference to licensed systems, which they operate, from unlicensed systems, such as wireless LANs.

The wireless LAN industry contends that not only do they not cause interference, but that the “pro-business” FCC headed by Chairman Michael Powell will side with them because of the enormous size, scope and reach of their industry compared with that of satellite pay-radio operators. The satellite radio industry has two operators and about 20 receiver manufacturers vs. 145 Wi-Fi manufacturers.

Andrew Kreig, president of Washington-based Wireless Communications Association International, which represents fixed wireless companies, said if the FCC approves the petition, it would “severely hinder” users of unlicensed wireless spectrum. He predicted a “battle royal” over the issue.

The confrontation bubbled out of regulatory obscurity when Powell told the audience at the PC Forum in Scottsdale, Ariz., late last month that he wanted their comments on the issue.

Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. in New York asked the FCC to restrict the power of unlicensed systems operating in the 2.4GHz band in a Jan. 23 FCC filing. Sirius said out-of-band emissions from devices such as 802.11b wireless LANs “seriously threatened” deployment of the pay-radio systems that Sirius and rival XM Satellite Radio Inc. in Washington have spent a total of US$3 billion to develop.

“What we are trying to point out in the filing is what could be a potential interference problem in our band from devices like Wi-Fi. It does not serve their purposes in any way, but it interferes with ours,” said Sirius spokesman Jim Collins. For US$12.95 per month, Sirius offers subscribers 100 channels of digital audio transmitted from three satellites in an elliptical orbit above the U.S. The company believes the interference problem can be resolved by the installation of simple filters on either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices.

Chance Patterson, a spokesman for XM Satellite, which transmits 100 channels of pay-audio from two geostationary satellites and charges US$9.99 per month, echoed Collins. Patterson said Wi-Fi and Bluetooth manufacturers can install filters that prevent interference with satellite radios at “a modest cost.”

“We want to see all these applications move forward,” Patterson said.

Guy Hamblen, a manager in the wireless telecommunications group at United Parcel Service Inc. in Atlanta, which is in the midst of deploying the world’s largest wireless LAN/Bluetooth networks at its facilities, characterized the Sirius petition as “asking for the moon and negotiating down from there.”

Hamblen said he views any potential interference between Wi-Fi devices operating in the 2.4GHz band and satellite radios at 2.3GHz as close to immeasurable. He said that “at a distance of anything more than 100 feet, the interference is infinitesimal.”

Hamblen believes the real concern of Sirius lies with the use of Bluetooth systems as a link between cordless headsets and cell phones used in cars also equipped with satellite radios. In such a situation, the two systems would be “operating within two or three feet of each other.” Hamblen said the Sirius FCC petition doesn’t cause him any heartburn today because it takes years for the commission to act.

Gary Silcott, an Austin, Tex.-based public relations representative for the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) of manufacturers and developers, said the group “doesn’t believe the FCC will act on the petition. And if they do, they are required to issue a public notice and the SIG will react formally at that time.” He said the request by the satellite radio providers is “well outside the established rules” covering operation of unlicensed devices.

John Hughes, director of wireless marketing at Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., which provides wireless LAN systems to both UPS and FedEx Corp., said Sirius and XM knew they would be operating close to a band that was experiencing explosive growth in the number of users and applications.

“They knew [2.4GHz] was a public band and was becoming increasingly popular. It’s not like [the growth] is a big surprise,” Hughes said. Wi-Fi 2.4GHz systems operate at power as low as 100 milliwatts and don’t cause interference with satellite radios, he said.

“Wi-Fi wireless LANs and several other types of equipment use the 2.4GHz unlicensed band and comply with the FCC’s rules for out-of-band emissions. So it is questionable if Sirius Radio has a rational basis for their claim,” said Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi industry group, the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance in Mountain View, Calif.

“Sirius knew the spectrum rules when they designed their system. Now, it appears that they are going back after the fact and claiming that they need protection beyond what the rules already provide. It seems inappropriate for an entire industry [wireless LANs] to bear the responsibility for a single company’s inability to design a product to work within existing regulatory requirements.”

Michael Murphy, director of support services at the Carlson Hospitality division of Carlson Companies Inc. in Minneapolis, said that from his perspective, the spectrum battle is “not a real showstopper” and is low on the list of his wireless LAN priories. “I have a lot of other things I need to focus on, like security and encryption.”