July 21 — Auto and telecommunications industries may have to fight over a band of wireless spectrum previously set aside for vehicle technology, but federal regulators should prioritize public safety when divvying it up, the top Democrat on the House transportation panel said.
The Department of Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission should synchronize their priorities for the use of a 5.9 gigahertz (GHz) wireless spectrum band that will power Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) in connected cars before establishing any rules, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said in a letter to the agencies.
DeFazio, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he understood companies' commercial desires for more unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum, but because DSRC-connected cars have the potential to save many lives using the spectrum, that should outweigh any other public interest need.
“[T]he desire for better Pokemon Go play cannot be compared to the 35,000 motor vehicle deaths every year,” DeFazio wrote.
Auto manufacturers such as General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Corp. are planning to use spectrum that the FCC reserved for the industry more than a decade ago for technologies like collision-avoidance systems and vehicle-to-vehicle communication. But, with the ensuing rise in wireless technology usage, the communications industry has pushed the FCC to allow it to share the carmakers' spectrum to expand high-speed Wi-Fi.
The two industries have issued a series of tit-for-tat letters to federal regulators, with Wi-Fi companies arguing that the automakers were using safety as a cover to use the spectrum for unrelated purposes and auto industry groups denying that claim.
The dispute took another turn last month when Wi-Fi industry advocates filed a petition with the FCC suggesting the auto manufacturers were ill-prepared to deal with cybersecurity and privacy vulnerabilities in the DSRC band. According to the petition, the agency should thoroughly examine the issue before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finalizes a rule that would require vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology in all new cars and light trucks.
“When automakers talk about how DSRC has privacy by design and all the cybersecurity stuff, they mean the NHTSA definition of DSRC, which is a relatively tiny sliver directly under NHTSA's jurisdiction,” Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge said. “When you ask them explicitly about the commercial operations under the FCC's jurisdiction, the answer changes dramatically.”
Feld was one of the authors of the petition filed with the FCC.
DeFazio, who said he agreed with petitioners on the need for cybersecurity and privacy protections, also said that was no reason to delay the release of the NHTSA rule. The average age of vehicles is 11 years, which means it will take decades for DSRC to penetrate the fleet of vehicles nationwide—enough time for the auto industry to get cybersecurity and privacy protections in place before broad deployment, he said.
House Transportation committee staff told Bloomberg BNA that DeFazio talked with many interested parties before writing the letter, and that it made no judgment on the potential for unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum usage to interfere with DSRC-connected cars.
“It simply reminds DOT and FCC of the relative public interest and safety merits,” a committee staffer said.
The agencies have been planning to conduct tests to determine whether it is possible to safely share the 5.9 GHz band, but it is unlikely they will reach a final conclusion before the Obama administration exits (See previous story, 07/11/16).
With assistance from Lydia Beyoud in Washington
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