Frontline: iPhone Shows Need for New Wireless Network

Complaints about the speed of the network that Apple Inc.’s new iPhone connects to points to the need for a new broadband wireless network in the U.S., said a businessman proposing one.

The iPhone uses AT&T Inc.’s EDGE network, which AT&T says averages speeds of 100 kilobits to 150 kilobits per second. But one review in the Wall Street Journal called the network “pokey,” and a review in the New York Times called the network “excruciatingly slow,” saying users may “almost ache for a dial-up modem.”

With new wireless spectrum scheduled to be auctioned by early next year, the launch of the iPhone demonstrates the need for a faster new network, said Reed Hundt, a former chairman at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and vice chairman of Frontline Wireless LLC. Frontline has asked the FCC to set aside 22MHz of spectrum out of 84MHz available for a national wireless broadband network, to be built by the highest bidder for the spectrum.

“The connection service is a bridge back to the 20th century,” Hundt said Monday. “The iPhone is like the guy who invented the Ferrari and found out he was selling into a country of dirt roads.”

Apple selected the AT&T network in part because it covers 90 percent of the U.S. AT&T has been pleased with the iPhone launch, said spokesman Todd Smith.

There are faster networks in the U.S., but they do not have the geographic coverage that EDGE provides.

“We believe the EDGE network was designed for a product like the iPhone,” Smith added. “We’re confident with its ability to support the device.”

Hundt doesn’t blame AT&T for the network speeds, he said. Instead, the U.S. government has so far failed to provide spectrum available for faster new networks, he said. “It’s not AT&T, its not Apple, it’s the government that arranged things so there’d be only one national network,” he said.

The FCC has a chance to change that when it sets the rules for the auctions in the 700MHz band being abandoned by U.S. television stations, Hundt said. “There’s one last chance for the government to take a new course, and create an open, truly national … wireless broadband network,” he said.

Frontline and other supporters of an open-access broadband network say the 700MHz spectrum auctions represent the last chance for the U.S. to create a new broadband network to compete with cable modem and DSL (digital subscriber line) providers. In late 2005, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that requires U.S. television stations to move to digital broadcasts and abandon spectrum in the 700MHz band by February 2009.

That spectrum allows broadband signals to travel three to four times farther than signals transmitted in higher bands.

The Frontline plan would require the winning bidder of one chunk of spectrum to build a dual-use commercial and emergency response network, with priority network use for police and fire departments. Frontline is asking the FCC to require “open access” rules, allowing wireless and broadband providers across the country to buy wholesale access to the network.

CTIA, a trade group representing wireless phone providers, and the Hands Off the Internet coalition, representing AT&T, Alcatel-Lucent SA and other groups, have opposed open-access rules, saying consumers already have many choices in the wireless market.

FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group, said in a paper released last week that too many questions about the Frontline proposal still exist, such as who will finance the network and how much public safety agencies will have to pay for access.

“Frontline asks both U.S. taxpayers and public safety agencies to become its business partners, its first and largest investors,” wrote study author Jeffrey Eisenach.