FCC move may affect vehicle wireless

The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing how radio spectrum used for wireless communications is allocated, and the 5.9 GHz frequency set aside for vehicle safety applications could be a casualty in the process.

For the last several months, the FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, has set in motion plans to free up spectrum for unlicensed usage, meaning industries and technologists will be able to utilize connectivity without prior approval.

Experts say a boom in applications for low-power connectivity and demand for Internet access in rural areas could lead the agency to re-evaluate the auto industry’s claim to spectrum that enables wireless vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology.

In recent years, the industry has grappled with pursuing dedicated short-range communication, known as DSRC, or cellular-based connectivity. But both need access to the radio spectrum for vehicle safety services.

For the FCC, mobile phone data and rural Internet services are “a higher priority than protecting spectrum for safety applications,” said Roger Lanctot, an analyst with Strategy Analytics. The spectrum-sharing “decision the FCC has to make will impact both cellular and DSRC.”

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“Among spectrum and wireless experts, there’s befuddlement about why it’s taken so long,” said Brent Skorup, a researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who specializes in wireless policy and transportation technology.

There is only one vehicle on the market with DSRC vehicle-to-vehicle capabilities, the Cadillac CTS sedan. The brand plans to roll out connectivity to more nameplates in the next several years, and Toyota announced it will install DSRC transmitters in cars starting in 2021.

But the lack of consumer introduction has led skeptics to call for new uses for the spectrum, which was dedicated for vehicle safety applications in 1999.

“At the time of the allocation, we did not have the commercial applications or new radar technologies that can play a key role in improving highway safety and thus saving lives,” Chairman Pai said in a July statement . “My hope is that we make a smart decision quickly to allow this spectrum to directly benefit consumers.”

The FCC declined to comment on spectrum-sharing decisions.

New approach

In the decade since DSRC standards for vehicle-to-vehicle communication were first codified, an explosion in wireless usage has led the FCC to rethink its approach in dedicating spectrum.

“The traditional way for allocating spectrum was to hand it out for free to various industries who have a good public-use case,” Skorup said. “The FCC has gotten away from that, and that’s why folks are looking at DSRC.”

Lobbyists representing industries interested in utilizing the spectrum, such as NCTA – the Internet & Television Association, have pressured the FCC to push forward on reviewing the auto safety designation.

And this month, the agency announced it will vote to make unlicensed usage of the 6.0 GHz band available, spanning from about 5.9 GHz to 7.1 GHz, for laptops, phones and other devices, .

Competing interests

Though the decision would not necessarily preclude the automotive safety application of the 5.9 GHz range, experts say, it could foreshadow regulators eventually deciding to release the spectrum.

While it’s unclear what direction the FCC will choose to take with the 5.9 GHz spectrum, one notable fact is that much of the work done to advance vehicle-to-infrastructure technology has been funded and encouraged by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“The Department is continuing its work to preserve the ability for transportation safety applications to function in the 5.9 GHz spectrum,” regulators wrote in the third edition of its autonomous vehicle policy guidance, released this month.

DSRC communication modules are installed in traffic boxes, lights and other infrastructure to communicate with cars on the road and manage traffic. According to regulators, over $38 million worth of connected infrastructure investment is planned by 2020 across federal, state and local governments — all of which would utilize spectrum reserved for vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

Some say the forecast of spectrum reallocation has the industry in a stasis.

It’s “a major shoe we’re all waiting to see drop,” Lanctot said. “I don’t think the debate has advanced at all, unfortunately.”