Bi-Partisan Spectrum Transfer Should Move Forward

Johnny Kampis

March 1, 2018

The Trump administration should decline to reconsider an outdated technology mandate for automobiles that would lead to increased costs for consumers and tie up spectrum that could better be used to help boost broadband growth.

Several auto industry officials who had held insider discussions with the White House and Department of Transportation (DoT) officials told U.S. News & World Report in November that an Obama administration-era plan to require car manufacturers to implement wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication has been dropped. Although the White House would not comment, U.S. News & World Report noted that the proposal was removed from the White House Office of Management and Budget’s list of actively considered regulations and placed instead on the long-term list.

It should be dropped completely. The federal government set aside the 5.9 gigahertz spectrum band in 1999 for use by car manufacturers to develop dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) devices to allow vehicles to talk to each other. The idea was that by relaying basic safety messages wirelessly between cars vehicle safety could be improved.

However, nearly two decades later that technology is woefully underused.  In fact, many automobile manufacturers have adopted alternative technologies such as Cellular V2X.

Nonetheless, the DoT, under President Obama, issued a proposed rule in 2016 that would have required the technology in all light vehicles sold in the United States by 2023. A Cato Institute report estimated the move would cost carmakers $200 billion by 2060, and tack on about $300 to the average price of a car for consumers. 

The idea that the spectrum could better be used elsewhere is hardly a partisan issue. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, and Michael O’Rielly, a Republican, issued a joint statement in 2016 praising a move to allow the FCC to conduct tests to prove that the spectrum can be shared without causing interference with safety signals.

They noted that improving automobile safety is a laudable goal, but that there have been enormous changes in technology since the 5.9 GHz spectrum was set aside for DSRC.

“Connected cars are using a range of wireless technologies to provide safety functions, and autonomous vehicles are on their way,” Rosenworcel and O’Rielly wrote. “Meanwhile, technological advances have reduced the potential for interference and enabled spectrum sharing, allowing us to explore unlicensed opportunities in this band without causing harmful interference to DSRC safety-of-life functions. This pursuit is the best means to ensure the most effective and efficient use of the 5.9 GHz band.” 

The two commissioners said the 5.9 GHz band provides the best short-term opportunity to promote broadband innovation and expansion because combining the airwaves in that band with those “already available for unlicensed use nearby could mean increased capacity, reduced congestion, and higher speeds.”

The first test results are expected soon and will hopefully show that 5.9 GHz can be safely used by both internet providers and car manufacturers if they choose to do so.

Spectrum is finite, and therefore is in short supply. Internet providers need the 5.9 GHz band for additional wireless capacity. It’s time they were given the opportunity to use it.