This first part of a two-part investigation is concerned with the effects of dispersion on the propagation characteristics of the scalar field associated with a highly localized pulsed-beam (PB) wave packet in a lossless homogeneous medium described by the generic wave-number profile where is the frequency-dependent wave propagation speed. While comprehensive studies have been performed for the one-dimensional problem of pulsed plane-wave propagation in dispersive media, particularly for specific profiles of the Lorentz or Debye type, even relatively crude measures tied to generic profiles do not appear to have been obtained for the three-dimensional problem associated with a PB wave packet with complex frequency and wave-number spectral constituents. Such wave packets have been well explored in nondispersive media, and simple asymptotic expressions have been obtained in the paraxial range surrounding the beam axis. These paraxially approximated wave objects are now used to formulate the initial conditions for the lossless generic dispersive case. The resulting frequency inversion integral is reduced by simple saddle-point asymptotics to extract the PB phenomenology in the well-developed dispersive regime. The phenomenology of the transient field is parameterized in terms of the space–time evolution of the PB wave-front curvature, spatial and temporal beam width, etc., as well as in terms of the corresponding space–time-dependent frequencies of the signal, which are related to the local geometrical properties of the dispersion surface. These individual parameters are then combined to form nondimensional critical parameters that quantify the effect of dispersion within the space–time range of validity of the paraxial PB. One does this by performing higher-order asymptotic expansions beyond the paraxial range and then ascertaining the conditions for which the higher-order terms can be neglected. In Part II [J. Opt. Soc. Am. A 15, 1276 (1998)], these studies are extended to include the transitional regime at those early observation times for which dispersion is not yet fully developed. Also included in Part II are analytical and numerical results for a simple Lorentz model that permit assessment of the performance of various nondimensional critical estimators.
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