Talking Cars, the FCC, and a Battle for Bandwidth

Last month FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced a plan to allow unlicensed use of a 45-megahertz (MHz) chunk of the mid-band spectrum. How is this even close to related to mobility or transportation? In 1999, the FCC dedicated 75 MHz of the 5.9GHz band to vehicle-related communications and transportation safety, specifically to dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). Guess where that 45MHz portion is right now; you only get one try.

That’s right. Aiming for a 40-60 split in favor of unlicensed use, the FCC is cutting into the dedicated DSRC MHz to make room for what Chairman Pai likened to a “teenage phenom”. This reduction of the so-called “safety band” has garnered a healthy mix of responses, with the two opposing ends of the spectrum being vigorous support and scathing disbelief. For example:

“There’s always going to be something new just around the corner. If we’re going to be afraid to take advantage of the technology that’s available today to save lives, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

Carlos Braceras, Executive Director of Utah Department of Transportation

“The FCC is prepared to trade safer roads for more connectivity by giving away much of the 5.9GHz safety spectrum, and it proposes to make such an inexplicable decision in the absence of data. The Commission is prepared to put not just drivers but pedestrians and other vulnerable users, particularly first responders and those in work zones, at grave risk, and for what?”

Shailen Bhatt, President and CEO of ITS America

Let’s take a quick step back. What is actually is the DSRC spectrum? The DSRC spectrum addresses transportation safety via on-board and roadside wireless safety systems allowing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications. Essentially, it wants cars to talk to other cars and to traffic lights. However, the FCC has its sights set on a much larger goal: vehicle-to-everything communications (V2X).

Specifically, the plan proposes going beyond the practice of using short-wave technology, such as radios, in favor of prioritizing V2X using cellular technology (C-V2X), which is incompatible with DSRC.

“If it were a medicine, V2X might be considered a miracle drug capable of slowing down a public-health epidemic of U.S. traffic fatalities that last year numbered more than 36,000.”

Jeff Plungis, ConsumerReports.org

So you might assume that C-V2X tech would be getting a shot in the arm in the form of a 45MHz dedication. However, you’d be wrong. Chairman Pai’s remarks in November announced that the lower 45MHz are for unlicensed use. In particular, this would work toward addressing the ever-increasing demand for WiFi bandwidth. It was also proposed that the remaining 30MHz of the spectrum be dedicated to Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), with 20MHz to C-V2X and the remaining 10MHz potentially left to DSRC. Faster internet and lower chances of being hit by a car while crossing the road? It seems like finally being able to have our cake and eat it, too.

“So moving forward, let’s resist the notion that we have to choose between automotive safety and Wi-Fi. My proposal would do far more for both automotive safety and Wi-Fi than the status quo.”

Ajit Pai, FCC Chairman

But, of course, there are some drawbacks. Critics have pointed to a number of issues that they claim will come from splitting the safety band. For one, what about DSCR? Cities and municipalities may be sent back to square one in terms of smart transportation infrastructure developments and advancements is they focused their efforts on DSRC systems. Additionally, some auto-manufacturers may prefer C-V2X, but a number have already been installing DSCR systems, a potentially unworkable endeavor should this plan be put into action. The proposed plan doesn’t go as far as to kill DSCR, but some argue that it may as well.

The FCC’s concerns and proposed answers are admirable, but I can’t help but wonder how much of it is simply shiny paint covering tired wallpaper. For one, is the FCC’s true motivation actually addressing the lack of movement within the safety band for V2V, V2I, and V2X? Or, is it convenient? Chairman Pai indicated that this proposal came into being when the FCC was looking for contiguous swathes of the spectrum that it could open up for different types of unlicensed operations. While there is no doubt that jump starting transportation-related communications is important, the FCC’s dedication to transportation safety comes across as secondary.

I clearly don’t have answers, but these questions and others will hopefully be addressed as the FCC concludes the notice and comment period for the proposal and the next steps are taken.