The technology, known as ultrawideband, is a new method of wireless transmission promoted as a potential solution to the squeeze on the nation's airwaves created by the explosion of mobile phone, pager and other wireless device usage.
That's because ultrawideband devices operate over a wide swath of the airwaves, within frequencies already allocated to other uses, but by using millions of pulses each second that emit so little energy they do not interfere.
The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to allow the technology to be used on an unlicensed basis. The commission, however, opted to "err on the side of conservatism," at least for now, by requiring that ultrawideband be used only at certain frequencies and, in some cases, only by certain users.
All real-life implications of the limits, described in a 100-page document few were able to digest immediately, were unclear. Still, companies involved in developing ultrawideband applications were happy to see the FCC take a step forward.
"We've gone from basically being illegal to being legal," said Jeffrey Ross, a vice president of Time Domain Corp. Based in Huntsville, Ala., Time Domain is one of a handful of companies that have received waivers to begin marketing the technology and were pursuing FCC approval.
Mostly used now by the U.S. military, ultrawideband allows for wireless communications and accurate readings of location and distance that have a wide range of applications.
Potential new commercial uses that could be allowed under the standards set by the FCC include:
Otherwise, the FCC primarily limited ultrawideband technology to public safety uses.
For instance, only police and fire officials, scientific researchers and mining or construction companies could use so-called ground-penetrating radar devices, which could help rescuers find victims in rubble or locate ruptured gas lines underground.
The FCC also limited devices that can see through walls and detect motion within certain areas to law enforcement and firefighters, which could use them to see into a building during a hostage situation or evaluate a fire from the outside. It was unclear whether those applications will be possible at the low power levels set by the FCC.
The FCC proceeded cautiously out of uncertainty whether ultrawideband could coexist safely with other services, such as military airwaves use, cell phones and the Global Positioning System, the U.S.-built network of navigation stellites.
Commissioners acknowledged the standards might be overprotective but pledged to consider the question again in six months to a year.
Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Steven Price, a deputy assistant secretary at the Pentagon, praised the FCC's approach.
"To remain the world leader, we must continue to encourage deployment of important new technologies while protecting those that already exist," Evans said.
By Jennifer Loven © MMII The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed