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FCC Spectrum Proposal Spotlights Automaker Technological Divide

Todd Shields and Ryan Beene

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai proposed reallocating to mobile devices airwaves long assigned to vehicle safety while preserving some of the spectrum for carmakers planning to deploy new technology.

“We want to move on from something we’ve tried for a long time that wasn’t working, and open the door to new and exciting opportunities,” Pai said in a speech at a Washington event. “After 20 years of seeing these prime airwaves go largely unused, the time has come for the FCC to take a fresh look.”

Auto industry reaction highlighted a division between companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. that have already invested in the old technology and a growing number of others, including Ford Motor Co., that back the newer system that they say performs better.

Pai set a Dec. 12 vote on his proposal, which would commence a months-long comment period on giving Wi-Fi gadgets access to 60% of the airwaves reserved for auto safety in 1999. Automakers would retain use of the remainder.

The change wouldn’t be final until another vote by the FCC, which under Pai has worked to free airwaves bands for new uses. Because Pai leads a Republican majority, his proposals usually pass.

In 1999, the frequencies were reserved 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.

In a concession to carmakers, Pai’s plan would devote most of their remaining portion of the spectrum to the new cellular-based safety technology that several have recently embraced. A thin remaining slice would be used for either the new system or for an older accident-avoidance technology foreseen two decades ago but is little used today.

Ford announced earlier this year that it would outfit all its new U.S. models starting in 2022 with newer cellular vehicle-to-everything technology. Toyota, meanwhile, halted in April plans to deploy the older systems in 2021 citing dwindling support from regulators and other carmakers.

However, Toyota said in a statement on Wednesday that it remains committed to the older technology and that the entire spectrum band currently allocated for auto safety should remain available to them.

General Motors Co. deferred comment to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which, along with several groups, including the American Automobile Association, urged caution.

‘Harmful Interference’

The groups issued a joint statement asking the FCC to refrain from sharing the frequencies with non-safety devices “until test results clearly indicate that sharing with unlicensed devices can occur without harmful interference.”

The U.S. Transportation Department said it hadn’t changed its position that the entire airwaves swath needs to be retained for auto safety. The government has spent hundreds of millions on the older, competing technology called dedicated short-range communications.

“We’re hoping to preserve that 75 megahertz because it is now time, the technology is now there, that we can start deploying this potentially life-saving technology,” James Owens, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a Senate hearing.

The 5G Automotive Association, a group that backs the new cellular safety system, applauded Pai’s proposal.

Public Safety

“Extensive crash avoidance testing continues to demonstrate that C-V2X technology will deliver safety benefits to the American public,” said the group. It represents most major automakers including Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen AG and Honda Motor Co., in addition to wireless companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. and gear makers Samsung Electronics Co. and Qualcomm Inc.

“This visionary FCC proposal will enable us to bring the tremendous, unmatched safety benefits from C-V2X to US drivers, passengers, and pedestrians,” Dean Brenner, Qualcomm’s senior vice president of spectrum strategy and technology, said in a statement.

The Intelligent Transportation Society of America, an advocacy group with members including GM and several states that have deployed safety equipment that works off the older technology said the “FCC is prepared to trade safer roads for more connectivity.”

“In a country that reels from nearly 36,000 roadway deaths every year, it is unfathomable that the United States would literally give away our top safety tool -- and with it, our best chance to save tens of thousands of lives,” ITS America president Shailen Bhatt said in the group’s emailed statement.

Cable providers that offer Wi-Fi for customers’ wireless use welcomed Pai’s move. Charter Communications Inc. said it was “thrilled” and Comcast Corp. said the “spectrum is too valuable a national resource to lie fallow any longer.”

The airwaves could be used for fast communications including machine-to-machine links, and smart city applications such as smart 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.

--With assistance from Keith Naughton.

To contact the reporters on this story: Todd Shields in Washington at tshields3@bloomberg.net;Ryan Beene in Washington at rbeene@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net, John Harney, Todd Shields

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