When it comes to the allocation and use of spectrum, the U.S. government has a deep-seated knee-jerk tendency to be ultra-conservative.

The Food and Drug Administration should be envious of the FCC's track record of protecting the airwaves from any hint of interference, sometimes in league with supporting players like the FAA and the Department of Defense.

Increase diversity on the FM airwaves through community-based microbroadcasters using low-power equipment? Can't do that, might interfere with an established interest, like a large radio conglomerate.

Use a cell phone on a commercial airplane? Can't do that, might interfere with the navigational devices and operation of the plane, even though cell phones operate in different frequencies and nobody's ever been able to document an interference event (So saith Wired's Web site, Feb. 15, 2001, http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,41273,00.html).

Dare we mention Sept. 11 here?

Now comes one of the coolest dual-use (i.e. military and civilian) technologies since GPS: Ultra Wideband. UWB technology enables everything from really cheap low-power, high-speed wireless networking to gizmos that can see through walls.

Want to guess where the holdup is? Nope, can't do that, might interfere with navigational devices on airplanes if a UWB device is cranked up 10 to 12 dB above existing limits. Might interfere with GPS. We have to study it some more.

Does anyone spot the pattern here? The bureaucratic answer is always “no,” followed by an extended period of dog-fight lobbying between someone (typically with deep pockets) trying to protect his established interests and (underfunded) innovators struggling to bring products to market.

After many rounds of hearings, a “compromise” is typically inflicted that handcuffs any real innovation, and the status quo continues. Real-life engineering and testing are only a sideshow here; any sort of demonstrated hard-core repeatable interference issues would mean the end of the story for both sides.

Never mind that UWB-based radios have the potential to clearly communicate inside buildings where many “conventional” mobile radios have problems without repeaters. They also could include a precision location function, the sort of thing equally useful for a squad of marines or a group of firefighters in a burning building.

Sci-Fi speculation? Hardly. An April 20, 2001, press release from Time Domain, a UWB chip manufacturer, discussed a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant from the Department of Commerce. TimeDomain would demonstrate the basic technology and hope the work would lead to a second grant to build prototype hardware to be integrated with a firefighter's gear. Another UWB-based device can literally see through walls and other debris to ocate trapped people.

Dare we mention how useful both UWB-devices would have been on Sept. 11 and the days after?

Unfortunately, this continued shortsightedness is likely not only hurting the civilian world, but the fast-moving high-tech “Transformational” U.S. military. Civilians and generals alike have forgotten the lessons of GPS and the Gulf War. The Global Positioning System was built and is operated by the Department of Defense, but over the years the civilian world embraced the system and started cranking out GPS receivers. Short of military-grade receivers in late 1990, the armed forces ended up reaching over the fence and snapping up every civilian GPS receiver available for use in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Due in no small part to mass-market civilian production, GPS receivers are now cheap enough to throw away - at least when attached to 2,000 lb. bombs.

Similarly, UWB-based networking technology isn't just for shoveling around video in the house. With miserly power consumption, low-probability of interception (i.e. no flashing “shoot me” sign on an electronic warfare console), and high data rates, UWB is the perfect networking tool for a host of military applications. Possibilities range from linking together workstations without wires in rear area command posts to literal “local area” networks composed of smart sensors and brilliant weapons scattered across choke points behind enemy lines.

Of course, DoD has some hesitation seeing UWB devices proliferate as they provide some insight and technology into building gizmos such as an anti-stealth radar and GPS jammers.

However, DoD isn't (at least not publicly) calling the shots on UWB licensing - it's an all-FCC show. Does the FCC realize we are at war? In the civilian sector, there is a demonstrated and immediate need for better radio technology for public safety workers. Having a gizmo to see through walls and debris to locate people is also on the must-have list. Faster wireless networking technology benefits both civilians and the military, and the military is much more likely to be a customer of off-the-shelf UWB networking technology once the civilian world starts incorporating it into everything from PCs to TVs.

The FCC should stop treating UWB technology like it is radioactive and allow innovators to push the envelope.

Doug Mohney has been a columnist since 1995, covering the Internet, streaming media, and satellite broadcast. He also provides marketing consulting for technology companies. He can be reached at moo@vegascommando.com.