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FCC Votes 5-0 to Split Auto Safety Spectrum for Wi-Fi Use

Supriyo Bose

In a landmark decision, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has voted unanimously in favor of splitting the spectrum block earmarked for auto safety for use by wireless devices to meet the exponential growth of bandwidth due to increased 5G deployment. The decision has evoked strong responses from auto manufacturers that advocated the need of dedicated spectrum band to develop technology for connected vehicles and traffic systems to minimize accidents.

Although the measures require a second voting to be effective, following a period for public comments, the telecommunications regulator’s undivided decision to open up unused spectrum for Wi-Fi is likely to fend off stiff opposition for the implementation.

V2V Communications

Since 1999, the U.S. government has reserved 75 MHz of the 5.9 GHz spectrum band for automakers, intending to use it exclusively for the research and development of technology to allow vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. The V2V communication enables vehicles to wirelessly exchange information about their speed, location and braking status, leveraging sensors on vehicles and dedicated short-range radio communication (DSRC) devices. With a range of about 300 meters, it effectively has a longer capability compared with ultrasonic sensors, cameras and radars, and can therefore help avert probable accidents by alerting drivers of dangerous situations beforehand.

Although local governments had reportedly deployed DSRC at about 100 test sites around the country, FCC alleged that little progress was made on paper. The V2V communication has been only made available in the Cadillac sedan models of General Motors Company GM. As the so-called ‘safety spectrum’ remained mostly unused, it led to a clamor among cable providers and wireless carriers to make the airwaves available to them to meet increased bandwidth demand, forcing the FCC to step in.

FCC Plan

The FCC plan seeks to allocate 45 MHz for Wi-Fi use and set aside the remaining 30 MHz for auto safety. The allocation is based on the perceived importance of Wi-Fi, which is likely to double by 2023 to more than $1 trillion, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Out of the 30 MHz spectrum band assigned for auto safety, 20 MHz will be allotted for a newer version of vehicle-to-everything communications or V2X technology, known as cellular vehicle-to-everything or C-V2X, and the remainder for the legacy DSRC safety system.

The proposal has elicited strong protests from safety advocacy groups for seeking to waste thousands of dollars of taxpayer-funded local investments for smart traffic lights and other smart road technology. In addition, leading auto manufacturers such as Ford Motor Company F, BMW AG, Daimler AG, and Tesla, Inc. TSLA have protested the FCC decision. However, some automakers like Ford have backed the plan for encouraging C-V2X, provided it is kept free from any interference from the overlapping Wi-Fi use.

C-V2X: The New Dimension

Serving as the cornerstone for technology that enables vehicles to communicate with each other and virtually everything around them, C-V2X facilitates a 360 degree non-line-of-sight awareness and a higher level of predictability for improved road safety and autonomous driving. It encompasses V2V, vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P), and vehicle-to-cloud (V2C) communication for a holistic approach to safety.

A lot of pioneering work is being done on this front and the industry is betting big on Qualcomm Incorporated’s QCOM 9150 C-V2X Chipset.  It empowers automakers and roadside infrastructure providers with improved V2X capabilities for safety and autonomous driving.

Whether such technologies can indeed help compensate for the loss of safety spectrum for Wi-Fi use remain to be seen.

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