TV Spectrum Opening for Wireless Devices

A U.N. telecoms meeting decided Thursday to give mobile service providers access to bandwidth currently reserved for terrestrial television broadcasts, offering the promise of high-speed Internet access on-the-move anywhere in the world by 2015.

The decision will give manufacturers of wireless equipment greater security to develop better and cheaper devices, while service providers can expect significantly lower rollout costs for new networks.

U.S. officials lobbied hard for a global agreement on spectrum use, arguing that a common approach was better than each country or region deciding to use separate frequencies for next-generation mobile services.

Consumers in the United States are to gain access to at least some of the spectrum in question by 2009, but it will take an additional six years before those in Europe, Africa, China, Russia and much of the Middle East will have the same access.

The decision to open these frequencies -- sometimes described as the beachfront property of the radio spectrum -- to mobile services will mean significant cost-savings for telecommunications companies.

While estimates vary, experts believe that networks can be rolled out for less than half of the cost of using higher frequencies, such as the 2,300 to 2,400 megahertz range that is also available for such services in some regions.

Countries agreed to the rule after a month of negotiations that boiled down to a battle between old and new media -- broadcasters against telecommunications companies -- for control of a prime stretch of radio spectrum.

All-night talks at the U.N.-hosted World Radiocommunications Conference in Geneva finally resulted in a deal by Thursday morning, but not without Europe's powerful broadcasting interests winning a major concession that means the amount of bandwidth available for mobile services in their region will be half of what is offered elsewhere.

European broadcasters warned earlier this week that viewers of digital terrestrial television could see their reception interrupted by nearby cell phones if the two technologies shared the same frequency.

In addition to the reduced bandwidth, Europe, Africa, China, Mongolia, the countries of the former Soviet Union, and much of the Middle East would wait until 2015 before making the most cost-effective part of the radio spectrum available for advanced mobile services.

The delay allows European broadcasters more time to examine interference problems, and allays Russian concerns about a possible conflict with military and aviation broadcasts that still use the frequency.

"We're very pleased with the outcome," said Richard Russell, the head of the U.S. delegation.

"Clearly the market for these technologies and services has grown substantially because of this conference," he said, adding there would be 2.8 billion potential customers in Asia alone.

A U.S. government auction scheduled for February is expected to fetch up to $15 billion from the sale of bandwidth in the 698 megahertz to 806 megahertz range.

The same frequencies will be available for mobile services throughout the Americas, India, Japan, Korea and a number of other Asian countries, while the rest of the world will initially use only the 790 megahertz to 862 megahertz range.