Nearly lost amidst the breathless anticipation of all things wireless—whether it's the latest smart phone, free Internet hot spot or GPS navigation system—is the potential impact these gadgets may have on scientific instruments that likewise need access to the electromagnetic spectrum. Yet the proliferation of wireless technologies, licensed and otherwise, grabbing increasingly more spectrum bandwidth is interfering significantly with scientists' ability to monitor radio emissions from the Earth and space that "yield vital information" about our planet and its place in the universe, according to a report released Monday by the National Research Council's Scientific Use of the Radio Spectrum committee.

Interference from wireless devices makes it difficult for scientists to gather signals used for radio astronomy and Earth environmental sensing, in some cases rendering these signals unusable, says the 175-page report, written in response to concerns that NASA, the Department of Commerce, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have raised about the increasing potential for new wireless technologies to interfere with radio observations that have become important to the missions of these agencies.

The National Research Council committee determined that passive remote sensing observations are essential for monitoring Earth's natural systems and are therefore critical to human safety, the day-to-day operations of the government and the private sector, and the policymaking processes governing many sectors of the U.S. economy. The committee also found that radio astronomy has great potential for further fundamental discoveries, including the origins and evolution of the universe, the nature of matter, and life in other solar systems, which will have "an enormous impact on our understanding of fundamental physics and the place of humanity in the universe."

Use of spectrum to obtain geoscience and astronomical observations is already regulated by a complex system of national and international spectrum rules, but the relatively recent explosion of wireless technology is "challenging engineers' abilities to mitigate unwanted interference from the active services [such as cell phones and wireless computer networks], and the rules have not evolved with the technology," according to the report. "Both the active and the passive services are increasing their use of the spectrum, and so the potential for interference, already strong, is also increasing."

The National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) regulates spectrum use for federal government users, whereas the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates all other users. The National Research Council's committee had two primary recommendations. The first is that the Commerce Department and NTIA work with National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop a national spectrum assessment system that can manage radio wave use based on the spectral and spatial density of emitters.

The second recommendation was for the NTIA, NSF and NASA to promote the development of technology that filters or modulates unwanted signals, protecting radio emissions studied by radio telescopes and geoscience instruments from being trampled by stronger wireless signals. The committee did not make recommendations on the allocation of specific frequencies to different users.

Greater access to the wireless spectrum has become a contentious issue in the past few years as tech companies, emergency responders and other wireless users clamor for more space. A year ago, the FCC granted Google, Microsoft and a number of other tech companies what they wanted by granting free, unlicensed wireless devices access to chunks of unused airwaves on the broadcast spectrum known as "white spaces" (so-named because they provide a buffer between broadcast channels). Meanwhile, a long-touted nationwide public safety broadband network, made possible by the freeing of broadcast spectrum in the country's switch to digital television this past June, continues to stagnate.

Image © Nick Schlax