Broadband Gets Jump on Connected Cars as FCC Advances Plan

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Federal Communications Commission moved toward letting mobile devices take over airwaves long assigned to carmakers for vehicle safety, advancing a plan opposed by highway officials focused on cutting crash deaths.

The FCC on a 5-0 vote Thursday proposed devoting most of the auto-safety airwaves to broadband uses including Wi-Fi for routers, with most of the remainder of the swath going to a new cellular connected-vehicle technology. A sliver may be kept for a legacy safety system that hasn’t evolved as expected when the airwaves were assigned in 1999.

The measure needs a second vote to become effective, following a comment period.

“After two decades of dormancy” the airwaves swath “deserves a fresh look by the FCC,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said. He called the proposal balanced and said it “will advance both unlicensed wireless innovation and automotive safety technologies.”

Carmakers such as Toyota Motor Corp. have already invested in the old technology, and a growing number of others, including Ford Motor Co., back the newer system that they say performs better. Others turning to the newer system include BMW AG, Daimler AG, and Tesla Inc.

Two associations representing most major automakers manufacturers criticized the FCC’s move, saying the auto industry is ready to deploy connected vehicle technologies including “critical safety communications” using the whole band of airwaves.

“The pending action by the FCC risks lives, slows innovation and runs counter to what the Commission has heard from safety and technical experts,” the Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a joint statement.

Safety advocates have asked the FCC to preserve the entire set of airwaves as dedicated in 1999. The U.S. Transportation Department greeted Pai’s proposal last month by saying it hadn’t changed its position that the entire airwaves swath needs to be retained for auto safety.

In a Nov. 20 letter to Pai, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the department still had “significant concerns” with his proposal and asked that it not be advanced until those issues are better addressed.

State officials concur.

“We have the potential to save thousands of lives if the dedicated spectrum is maintained for its original use,” safety advocates and groups representing state highway officials said in an Oct. 28 letter to Pai.

The frequencies were reserved two decades ago 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. The system could help stem what advocacy group Consumer Reports called “an epidemic” of road deaths that topped 36,000 last year.

Cable providers that want to use freed airwaves to offer Wi-Fi welcomed Pai’s move. The FCC vote “is an important step toward ensuring that America’s Wi-Fi networks are able to unleash gigabit speeds and keep up with the tremendous consumer demand for connectivity at home and on the go,” Michael Powell, president of NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, said in an emailed statement. Members of the trade group include Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc.

The frequencies could play host to fast communications including machine-to-machine links, and smart city applications such as connected cameras, traffic monitoring and security sensors, NCTA said in an earlier filing.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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