Next Administration Likely to Have to Resolve Car, Wi-Fi Dispute

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By Lydia Beyoud

July 8 — How best to use airwaves allocated more than a decade ago to implement vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology increasingly looks like an issue the next administration will have to resolve.

The automotive industry and a coalition of Wi-Fi boosters and public interest groups remain at odds over the best use of spectrum adjacent to where Wi-Fi is deployed. Car manufacturers such as General Motors Co. are touting their ability to soon deploy technology to save lives by avoiding collisions. Wi-Fi groups say that sharing the carmakers' spectrum would let them expand high-speed Wi-Fi, which carries approximately 80 percent of all mobile data.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Transportation are gearing up for tests to determine if it's even feasible for cars and Wi-Fi users to safely share the spectrum in the 5.9 gigahertz (GHz) band. But neither side in the fight has appeared willing to collaborate with each other or the agencies to find common ground.

Automakers are eager to roll out vehicles incorporating the technology, known as dedicated short range communication (DSRC) technology, to enhance safety but are also eager to explore other ways to make money using DSRC airwaves.

Those include traffic monitoring, parking location, toll road payments, and even location-based marketing. Those uses weren't included in the original spectrum plan and don't deserve the same sort of protection as safety systems, cable interests and public advocacy groups have said.

The FCC has committed to completing interoperability and sharing testing by Jan. 15, which all but guarantees that any subsequent policy changes regarding sharing will not be taken up by the FCC until the next administration. With the typical Washington personnel churn resulting from a new administration, even an aggressive timeframe for an FCC decision may extend well into 2017.

That roadmap may be good news for automakers. The Association of Global Automakers, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Intelligent Transportation Systems of America, representing companies such as Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co. and others in the domestic and international auto industries on July 8, called on the FCC to move cautiously on any changes, with priority given to public safety considerations.

“Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, which is ready today, has the potential to prevent over 1,000 deaths a year. The future of this significant lifesaving technology lies in the hands of the FCC,” said Global Automakers President and CEO John Bozzella.

The groups said the auto industry supports “the efficient use of spectrum and rigorous testing to determine whether the 5.9 GHz band can be safely shared” with unlicensed users, but also said “time-critical communications of these safety systems must be able to operate without delay,” according to their joint statement.

The auto industry groups received support from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who has called for the carmakers to retain control of the full spectrum allotment.

“It's my view that if you have something protected for a safety reason, until you have something definitive that gives you a basis to share it, then we should probably keep protecting it,” he said May 10 .

Cable's Reply

Cable groups may themselves try to use the auto industry's emphasis on preserving safety as a means to push for a decision to move forward to test sharing schemes.

“If automotive companies defend their need for the band for safety reasons, the Commission should limit their special rights to safety applications.,” the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said in comments filed with the agency late July 7. NCTA represents Comcast Corp., Charter Communications Inc, Cox Communications, Altice USA and others.

Otherwise, the FCC will have essentially granted “non-crash avoidance DSRC operations the extraordinary special status of a free nationwide exclusive license,” NCTA said.

Congress May have Final Word

Though telecommunications policy has shifted toward spectrum-sharing and away from single-use allocations, a future administration may take a different approach.

That means Congress may be the next venue for the two sides to press their views in the coming weeks, with one side defending the spectrum status quo and another trying to push against inertia created by a campaign season and anticipation of the lame duck period that will follow the election.

If the DOT and FCC are able to reach a policy decision that sharing should be the path forward, however, the commission could vote on an initial framework order before both agency heads are expected to exit, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. OTI is among the groups urging the FCC to open up the 5.9 Ghz spectrum band to sharing.

That framework will leave to the next administration decisions over technical details, he said.

“The sooner that basic decision is made, the sooner the two industries can focus their product development and testing,” said Calabrese, adding, “and, as the automakers keep saying, delay costs lives when it comes to deploying new safety technologies like V2V.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the automakers' statement is at http://src.bna.com/gCr.

Text of NCTA's comments is at http://src.bna.com/gDz.

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