Connected Cars Yield to Broadband as FCC Advances Airwaves Plan

By Todd Shields and Ryan Beene | December 12, 2019

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission moved toward letting mobile devices take over airwaves long assigned to carmakers for vehicle safety, advancing a plan opposed by highway officials focused on cutting crash deaths.

The FCC on a 5-0 vote Thursday proposed devoting most of the auto-safety airwaves to broadband uses including Wi-Fi for routers, with most of the remainder of the swath going to a new cellular connected-vehicle technology. A sliver may be kept for a legacy safety system that hasn’t developed as expected when the airwaves were assigned in 1999.

The measure needs a second vote to become effective, following a comment period.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the proposal last month, saying prime airwaves had gone unused for two decades.

Safety advocates have asked the FCC to preserve the entire swath as dedicated in 1999. The U.S. Transportation Department greeted Pai’s proposal last month by saying it hadn’t changed its position that the entire airwaves swath needs to be retained for auto safety.

In a Nov. 20 letter to Pai, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the department still had “significant concerns” with his proposal and asked that it not be advanced until those issues are better addressed.

State officials concur.

“We have the potential to save thousands of lives if the dedicated spectrum is maintained for its original use,” safety advocates and groups representing state highway officials said in an Oct. 28 letter to Pai.

The frequencies were reserved two decades ago by the FCC to link cars, roadside beacons and traffic lights into a seamless wireless communication web to help avoid collisions and alert drivers to road hazards, among other uses. The system could help stem what advocacy group Consumer Reports called “an epidemic” of road deaths that topped 36,000 last year.

But over the years deployments have been few. “The situation can at best be described as ‘promise unfulfilled,'” Pai said in a Nov. 20 speech.

Pai said his proposal would allow fuller use of valuable airwaves while leaving room for automotive safety, including the cellular system backed by automakers such as Ford Motor Co., BMW AG, Daimler AG, and Tesla Inc. The FCC’s proposal would let that technology use the airwaves in question.

Cable providers that want to use freed airwaves to offer Wi-Fi have welcomed Pai’s move. The frequencies could play host to fast communications including machine-to-machine links, and smart city applications such as connected cameras, traffic monitoring and security sensors, NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, a trade group for companies including Comcast and Charter the FCC in a Sept. 25 filing.

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