Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President. Practicing law at the intersection of tech, broadband and media policy.
The auto industry stands at a crossroads: adopt a new wireless standard for collision avoidance and other types of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications called C-V2X (cellular vehicle-to-everything) or continue to fight against the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2020 order mandating the phaseout of the old standard after 20 years of market refusal to adopt the proposal. Congress even included money in the bipartisan infrastructure package passed last year to induce the auto industry to stop fighting the FCC. You’d think this would make moving on and embracing the future (and the money) a no-brainer for the auto industry.
Unfortunately, for the auto industry, the Department of Transportation (DOT) seems determined to keep on fighting. The current chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Peter DeFazio, likewise seems determined to make this a fight over the FCC’s jurisdiction (and expand his own committee’s jurisdiction over the spectrum). Federal regulators with their own agendas need to slam on the brakes and allow the auto industry to move forward with C-V2X rather than stay stuck in reverse.
DSRC: The Standard That Stalled
In the 1990s, the auto industry promised that if the FCC allocated spectrum for “intelligent transportation systems,” they would create a wireless network enabling cars to talk to each other to avoid collisions, receive real-time updates on traffic and road conditions and, perhaps, one day even drive themselves. Nudged by Congress and the DOT, the FCC in 1999 allocated 75 MHz of spectrum at about 5.9 GHz (5.850 to 5.925 GHz). In 2003, the FCC blessed the auto industry’s chosen standard: direct short-range communications, or DSRC.
Then, nothing much happened with DSRC for the next 15 years. Constant auto industry squabbling created a massive traffic jam on the road to DSRC deployment. Meanwhile, wireless technology outside of DSRC went into high gear. Auto manufacturers put mobile cellular connections and Wi-Fi in cars. Apps like Waze now provide real-time traffic updates. Anticollision technologies and self-driving cars adopted different technologies, leaving DSRC in the dust. Even attempts by the DOT to goose adoption by trying to mandate DSRC for all new vehicles failed to jumpstart deployment. By 2020, DSRC deployment amounted to just a handful of state-funded pilot programs.
Not surprisingly, the FCC decided to pull the plug on DSRC in 2020 and replace it with the much more efficient C-V2X. This efficiency allowed the FCC to reclaim 45 MHz from the original 1999 allocation. After all, today’s wireless connections can carry thousands of times more data than when the auto industry adopted DSRC. The 45 MHz of reallocated spectrum went to rural wireless internet service providers to close the digital divide and next-generation Wi-Fi to support multiple streaming devices and smart homes, as well as other “unlicensed spectrum” uses to benefit consumers.
Because the reclaimed part of the band sits between two major unlicensed spectrum bands (one at 5.8 GHz and the other at 6 GHz), reclaiming this 45 MHz promises to have huge public interest benefits, such as telemedicine and other high-bandwidth services. This comes without compromising the future use of the band for auto safety (assuming the auto industry can deploy the technology this time around).
Congress created incentives for the auto industry to give up on DSRC (and the 45 MHz the FCC reclaimed) as part of the bipartisan infrastructure package mentioned earlier. Parties may apply for grants to retrofit DSRC systems into C-V2X systems, provided the “retrofitted technology operates only within the existing spectrum allocations for connected vehicles.” In other words, the auto industry can get their investment in DSRC fully refunded if they just stop fighting the future.
Federal Turf Fights May Keep C-V2X Stalled, Too
C-V2X has promise. For example, Congress allocated money for pilot programs using C-V2X to enhance fuel efficiency by making traffic patterns more efficient. C-V2X is based on 5G technology, so the remaining 30 MHz can support data, voice and video.
Unfortunately, it appears that even if the auto industry is ready to move on, the DOT is revving up to keep fighting. Last year, the DOT announced it would conduct studies on C-V2X under the new FCC rules. But rather than study how to optimize C-V2X with the allocated 30 MHz of spectrum, the study encourages participants to find that 30 MHz won’t be enough, that Wi-Fi in neighboring bands will cause harmful interference and that unless the FCC reallocates the lower 45 MHz back to the auto industry, the “safety band” will fail.
DOT officials haven’t waited for the testing to conclude before repeating these claims in interviews—even hosting a video with these claims on an official DOT website. Meanwhile, Chair DeFazio made it clear at a recent hearing that he still wants to reverse the FCC’s 5.9 GHz decision and insert his committee into the spectrum management process.
Nothing indicates that the auto industry wants to carry on this fight (as demonstrated by the lack of any quotes from automobile manufacturers in this article). But the auto industry can’t embrace C-V2X technology as long as the DOT continues to insist that it must have all 75 MHz of spectrum allocated in 1999, no matter how much more efficient C-V2X is compared to DSRC.
The federal turf fight by the DOT and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure now forms the biggest roadblock to actually using the “safety band.” Until the DOT stops trying to reverse the FCC’s decision, C-V2X will remain as stalled as DSRC was.