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Wireless Internet Gets A Boost

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Negotiators at an international conference have agreed to allocate more of the world's airwaves to wireless Internet users, U.S. and European Union officials said Wednesday.

The 180-nation World Radiocommunication Conference, which sets the standards for countries' use of airwaves, decided to expand by 455 megahertz space available to wireless local area networks, or WLANs. Final approval is expected before the meeting ends Friday.

The decision will be a particular boost for Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, a type of radio technology used for WLANs, a spokesman for the U.S. delegation to the conference told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Wi-Fi — which is like an advanced version of a baby monitor or a cordless telephone — lets a broadband Internet connection be shared by several computers, generally in a short range. Wi-Fi "hot spots," or cable-free access points, have sprung up in offices, cafes, airports and hotels around the world.

Most governments do not require Wi-Fi and other WLAN operators to have a license, but authorities worldwide recognize that frequency guidelines are needed and should be brokered by the U.N. telecommunications agency, the International Telecommunication Union.

Earlier, the U.S. delegation said in a statement that without agreement "the world's airwaves could quickly become a chaotic jumble of competing and interfering signals."

Most Wi-Fi networks operate in the 2.4 gigahertz range on the world's airwaves or spectrum — which is largely unregulated by governments and was not under discussion at the conference.

However, the latest Wi-Fi technology uses the 5 gigahertz spectrum, which is expected to dominate in the future something that pushed policy-makers to discuss it, officials said.

Under the deal, WLAN operators will be able to offer services in two frequency bands, 5150-5350 and 5470-5725 megahertz. WLANs in the United States currently operate in the 5150-5350 and 5725-5825 megahertz bands, while the EU allows them in the 5470-5725 megahertz band.

Most EU governments restrict outdoor WLAN use which can be as simple as taking a laptop onto a balcony — fearing it can interfere with radar, aircraft navigation systems and earth-sensing satellites.

Under a compromise deal agreed at the conference, in exchange for expanded frequency options, countries are asked to ensure that most WLANs operate indoors. EU officials said they were happy with the agreement.

More than 20 million people are expected to be using WLANs worldwide by 2007, officials from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said. Global sales of WLAN technology are increasing fast, from $1.1 billion in 2001 to a predicted $5.2 billion by 2005.

Because WLANs bypass traditional cables, they are seen as an ideal solution for Internet access for isolated communities and people in poor countries who have never been linked to the telephone network.

U.S. officials noted that a Wi-Fi system is used by 7,600 American Indians scattered across San Diego County, California, to document and preserve their cultural and linguistic heritage. On the slopes of Mount Everest, fees paid by climbers to access a WLAN weather information and emergency service fund trash collection and pay for Internet access in several Nepalese schools.

The agreement also is expected to reduce confusion for traveling wireless users because frequencies will be standard in different countries.

Separately, conference participants also are expected to increase the allocation of frequencies in the 14,000-14,500 megahertz band to airlines that want to offer their passengers inflight e-mail and other Internet services.

In 2002 the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration certified Boeing's Connexion wireless service.

The certification was the first of its kind for a broadband network linking satellite and ground networks to commercial aircraft during flight, Boeing said.

On Wednesday, Scandinavian Airlines Systems said it had signed a contract with Boeing to install Connexion aboard its planes. German airline Lufthansa also signed a similar deal.