FCC Votes to Open Auto Safety Spectrum to WiFi, Despite DOT Concerns

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In the second-to-last FCC meeting of the year, all five FCC Commissioners agreed to the plan to reallocate the 5.9 GHz auto safety band to enable WiFi use. That’s despite opposition from the Department of Transportation, which calls the planned changes dangerous. The new band plan designates the lower 45 megahertz (5.850-5.895 GHz) for unlicensed uses and the upper 30 megahertz (5.895-5.925 GHz) for enhanced automobile safety using Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) technology.

 It’s because of that opposition that Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) wrote to Pai Tuesday and asked him to delay the vote. FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks called the continuing disagreement between federal agencies on spectrum issues “disappointing,” though he voted for the changes.

Chairman Ajit Pai kept the agenda smaller than usual and restricted votes to bipartisan issues. House Democratic leaders recently asked Pai and the heads of 49 other federal agencies to restrict their decisions to consensus items for the remainder of the current administration’s term, Inside Towers reported.  

Commissioner Brendan Carr said carving out spectrum for new uses involve “tough fights.” He emphasized that, “incumbent stakeholders, whether federal or commercial, have pushed back on a lot of our mid-band efforts.” That’s evidence, he said, “that this FCC hasn’t just kicked the can down the road.”  

Originally, the entire band was designated for Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) services more than 20 years ago. However, the FCC says DSRC has not been meaningfully deployed. The action begins the transition away from DSRC services—which are incompatible with C-V2X. 

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Pai agree that only a few thousand vehicles are DSRC-equipped, out of roughly 274 million cars and trucks on the road. “You look at this, and it is fair to ask if there is another way,” said Rosenworcel.

She gave kudos to Commissioner Michael O’Rielly for being a partner with her on this topic for several years. O’Rielly said during the vote: “I am extremely pleased – bordering on ecstatic – that, after so many years of talk, there is finally action.”

People ask me all the time what my experience was like at the Commission. I tell them that with a sound vision, strategic moves, and extraordinary perseverance, a Commissioner can move mountains,” he said. “This item will always be a testament to my point.”

Other than the DOT, those who oppose the changes include a coalition of automakers, highway safety advocates, and members of Congress who oversee transportation. “The FCC has just been full speed ahead, and we’re not going to worry about data or what safety experts are saying,” Shailen Bhatt, the chief executive of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America told The Washington Post.

Pai says the FCC is concerned about auto safety. During the vote, he said: “By moving from DSRC to C-V2X, we are shifting from a failed technology of the past to a promising technology of the future. And based on the record, I am confident that the upper 30 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band will provide the spectrum needed for safety-related services. Indeed, right now only 20 MHz of the band is actually dedicated for safety applications.”

Pai continued: “So, notwithstanding the irresponsible rhetoric of some, this Commission does care about automotive safety. Indeed, it is precisely because we do that we’re shifting from DSRC to C-V2X. The sad fact is that DSRC has done virtually nothing to improve automobile safety. A few corporate interests cannot squat on this spectrum for a generation and expect to maintain a stranglehold on it just by giving it the empty slogan of the ‘safety spectrum.’”

The Report and Order adopts technical rules to enable full-power indoor unlicensed operations in the lower 45 MHz portion of the band immediately, as well as opportunities for outdoor unlicensed use on a coordinated basis under certain circumstances, according to the agency. Under the new rules, Intelligent Transportation System services will be required to vacate the lower 45 MHz of the band within one year. 

One group that was pleased with the changes is the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. WISPA VP of Policy Louis Peraertz said the order will immediately allow widespread indoor use of the lower 45 MHz of the band. The pending further notice “tees up permanent use for WISPs to use the 45 MHz outdoors. We look forward to working with all stakeholders during the [further rulemaking] process to maximize the band for broadband consumers who need this unlicensed spectrum to stay connected during the pandemic, and to promote an efficient transition of automotive safety communications to the upper portion of the band.”  

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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