DELEGATES from 165 countries are meeting in Spain today to parcel out the most precious resource of the telecommunications age: space on the radio-frequency spectrum.
Allocation plans being negotiated at the four-week World Administrative Radio Conference, held under the auspices of the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union (ITU), could be worth up to a $1 trillion globally over the next decade, according to Jan Baran, the ambassador who heads the 53-member United States delegation to the talks.
The general easing of East-West tensions and an increased concern with global economic development are expected to change the character and tone of the meeting.
Wilson Dizard, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here, points out that past frequency-allocation conferences have been devoted largely to countries trying to hang on to the frequencies they had or trying to increase their share based on existing technologies, which made inefficient use of radio frequencies. "There was so much waste and warehousing of frequencies," he laments.
This year, a greater emphasis is being placed on making frequencies available for new technologies that could revolutionize global communications.
"The international community is very excited about the technologies that are being raised by this particular agenda," Mr. Baran says. These include land- and satellite-based mobile phone services, digital radio broadcast via satellites, and to a lesser extent, high-definition television delivered by satellite. Such technologies, he says are exciting not only to developed countries, which would build equipment for and provide these services. Developing countries "see these services as being of immediate b enefit to them in meeting their own domestic telecommunications needs."
That isn't to say that the conference will lack contentious issues. But Baran says he does not expect a replay of 1982, when four of the five weeks of the Nairobi allocation conference were spent "in a debate on whether the State of Israel should be expelled from the ITU."
For its part, the US has brought proposals covering several key areas. These include:
* Big increases in the number of frequencies for global shortwave services such as Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe, the World Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and others. The US also seeks to speed the timetable for shifting to a technology that would use shortwave frequencies more efficiently.
* Expanded allocations for mobile satellite services. These services, which range from portable phones to maritime and aviation communications, represent "a major technology that can be introduced internationally in the very near future," Baran says. Motorola, for example, would like to deploy a constellation of 77 satellites in low earth orbit to be used for a mobile phone system.
* New allocations for digital audio broadcast. This technology, especially if delivered by satellite, has the potential to render current international shortwave broadcasting methods obsolete. It could start to come on line within two years of the conference's end, Baran says.
* Expanded frequencies for land-based mobile services such as cellular phones.
* Expanded allocations for space communications. The US is keenly interested in seeing that adequate frequencies are available for satellite data collection and transmission, communications between astronauts during spacewalks, and for programs such as the space station Freedom, lunar bases, and missions to Mars.
The technologies likely to generate the most interest among consumers, Baran said, are digital audio broadcast and expanded mobile telecommunications services. The time is not far off, he says, when satellites will link people via pocket phones that incorporate pagers as well as voice communications.
Proposals on shortwave, however, are likely to generate the most heat. Currently, shortwave broadcasters are to shift to so-called single-sideband transmission by 2015. But the US wants the change be completed by 2007. This would require a faster turnover in receivers (of which there are an estimated 500 million outside the United States) and in costly transmitters. It doesn't make sense to shift to sideband more quickly, the argument goes, if satellite-delivered digital audio broadcast could soon render