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There are two different forms of wireless technology. Terrestrial or fixed wireless systems transmit data over the airwaves from towers or antennas to a receiver. Mobile wireless broadband services (also referred to as third generation or “3G”) allow consumers to get broadband access over cell phones, PDAs, or wireless modem cards connected to a laptop.

Radio frequency (RF) spectrum is used for all wireless communications. It is managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for commercial and other non-federal uses and by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for federal government use. International use is facilitated by numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements covering many aspects of usage, including mobile telephony.[1] Spectrum is segmented into bands of radio frequencies and typically measured in cycles per second, or hertz.[2]

The FCC is planning to auction frequencies currently occupied by broadcast channels 52-69. These and other frequencies in the 700 MHZ band are possible candidates for wireless broadband applications.

A number of wireless technologies, corresponding to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, also have potential. These include the upperbands (above 24GHz), the lowerbands (multipoint distribution service or MDS, below 3 GHz), broadband personal communications services (PCS), wireless communications service (2.3 GHz), and unlicenced spectrum.

Unlicensed spectrum is being increasingly used to provide high-speed, short-distance wireless access (popularly called “Wi-Fi” — "wireless fidelity") to local area networks, particularly in urban areas where wired broadband connections already exist. A new and developing wireless broadband technology (called “WiMax” — an industry designation for a specific broadband standard) has the capability to transmit signals over much larger areas.

Advances in wireless telecommunications technology are converging with Internet technology to foster new generations of applications and services. Presently, the United States and other countries are moving to third-generation (3G) and fourth-generation mobile telephony. The defining feature of these technologies is that transmission speeds are significantly faster than prevailing technology, making it possible to provide services such as high speed access to the Internet and to receive broadcast television programs.

Wi-Fi and WiMAX[]

A related trend is the growth in use of Wi-Fi and WiMAX. Wi-Fi uses local wireless networks for high-speed mobile access to the Internet. WiMAX has a broader range of distance. 3G could be described as bringing Internet capabilities to wireless mobile phones; Wi-Fi as providing wireless Internet access for laptop computers; and WiMAX as expanding networks with wireless links to fixed locations. The technologies are seen by some as competing for customers and by others as complementary — providing a broader base and greater choice of devices for wireless communications and networking.

From the perspective of spectrum management, a significant difference in the technologies is that 3G and WiMAX services operate on designated, licensed frequencies, while Wi-Fi shares unlicenced spectrum with other technologies. As the markets for Wi-Fi and WiMAX develop, wireless carriers have become concerned about the competitive impact on their businesses when municipalities offer wireless broadband services.

Advantages and disadvantages[]

Wireless technologies provide many potential benefits, including greater flexibility for a mobile workforce and ease of installation and use. However, they also pose significant risks to information and systems. Wireless technologies use radio waves instead of direct physical connections to transmit data between networks and devices. As a result, without proper security precautions, this data can be more easily intercepted and altered than if being transmitted through physical connections.


  1. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), part of the United Nations, is the primary organization for coordinating global telecommunications and spectrum management.
  2. One million hertz = 1 megahertz (MHz); 1 billion hertz = 1 gigahertz (GHz).

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