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FCC News Update

AOL Time Warner has agreed with IBM's Lotus division to test ways for their instant messaging services to communicate with each other. The Aug. 14 announcement came less than a month after AOL told the FCC it would begin testing IM interoperability. As a condition for approving the AOL-Time Warner merger, the FCC required the company to file periodic updates on its IM efforts. AOL has been criticized by rivals such as Microsoft for not allowing others to communicate with its popular IM services.

About two-thirds of commercial U.S. television stations plan to broadcast a digital signal by the FCC's May 1, 2002 deadline. The National Association of Broadcasters made the estimate in an Aug. 14 report to the agency. The industry group said some stations in smaller markets are having a hard time paying for the equipment needed for digital broadcasts. NAB President Eddie Fritts told the commission, "We believe the economic realities of smaller markets and the stations that serve them ... may need special consideration."

An FCC report says 7.1 million U.S. households and businesses had access to high-speed Internet connections at the end of 2000--a growth rate of 158 percent for the year. The report, issued Aug. 9, found that 5.2 million of the high-speed lines were used by residential and small business subscribers. The statistics are gathered under a program set up in March 2000 to help the agency "in its efforts to monitor and further implement the pro-competitive, deregulatory provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996."

The FCC has expanded its search for airwaves that could be used for commercial third-generation mobile wireless services. In disclosing the Aug. 9 action, Chairman Michael Powell noted the commission's "critical focus ... on increasing capacity in the marketplace for new and advanced services." The agency is seeking comment on the feasibility of reallocating airwaves to so-called 3G services--which include high-speed mobile Internet access--from mobile satellite, amateur radio and unlicensed PCS services.

The FCC will ask the Supreme Court to settle its fight with NextWave Telecom over valuable airwaves licenses. In announcing the move Aug. 6, Chairman Powell expressed hopes the justices will "protect the integrity" of the FCC's wireless spectrum auctions program. He called the program "the best method of assigning scarce and precious spectrum resources to those that will put them to their most productive use." After NextWave filed for bankruptcy, the FCC revoked licenses the company had won in an agency auction--then reauctioned them to rivals. Last month, a federal appeals court ruled that the licenses were protected by bankruptcy laws and should not have been resold. The FCC will formally appeal that decision to the high bench September 22.

By Don Fulsom, former UPI White House reporter.