Wi-Fi Gets 5G Airwave Boost as Carmakers Lose Spectrum Fight

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted Wednesday to redeploy airwaves assigned 21 years ago for a vehicle safety system that hasn’t come to fruition, rejecting carmakers’ efforts to hold onto the frequencies.

The change, on a 5-0 vote, follows years of rearguard lobbying by carmakers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. to retain their exclusive hold on the rich airwaves swath they were allotted in 1999.

Since then a new wireless era has arrived, with surging demand for frequencies from mobile phones and other devices that connect over Wi-Fi. In response the FCC has moved to open airwaves to new uses. Those at issue in Wednesday’s vote are suited to new 5G technologies that promise connected factories and homes via ultra-fast links.

With its vote the FCC opened the way for billions of Wi-Fi devices to use frequencies once destined for a safety system to be used by the likes of pickup trucks and Cadillac sedans linked to roadside gadgets.

The long-promised safety network hasn’t materialized, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at the FCC’s meeting in Washington minutes before the vote.

“We can no longer tolerate this inefficient use” of the airwaves, Pai said.

Earlier, Pai in a blog post said allowing more uses of the swath assigned to vehicles can help boost fast internet connections “in homes, schools, small businesses, and health care facilities.”

Automakers tried to avoid the loss of the spectrum by proposing to enable “talking cars” quicker with the installation of at least five million so-called vehicle-to-everything radios on vehicles and roadside infrastructure over the next five years.

The FCC’s move “undeniably impacts road safety and the future of automotive innovation in this country,” said John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group with members including BMW AG, Ford, GM and Toyota Motor Corp.

“Not only was most of the 5.9 GHz Safety Spectrum reallocated away from transportation safety, but it also appears that critical issues around harmful interference to Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) operations were not addressed,” Bozzella said in an email after the vote.

GM, in a statement, said “the FCC has moved toward jeopardizing roadway safety” with the Wednesday vote. The company said it is “disappointed that the FCC has dismissed these safety concerns by shifting 45 MHz away to unlicensed use, severely limiting the potential of V2X to operate safely.”

Reassigning the airwaves represents a win for cable providers such as Comcast Corp. that want to use the frequencies to connect with customers’ mobile devices. They promise gigabit speeds, or very fast connections.

The FCC is taking “an important step” toward “improving and expanding broadband service,” NCTA, a Washington-based trade group for cable companies, said in a Nov. 10 filing. “It will allow providers quickly to deliver gigabit Wi-Fi speeds to consumers and relieve Wi-Fi congestion.”

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 a filing.

U.S. households increasingly are using Wi-Fi to connect to the internet, and demand is growing, the FCC said in its order prepared for Wednesday’s vote.

The coronavirus pandemic has boosted reliance on Wi-Fi as more households are turning to distance learning, teleworking, and social networking, the agency said. Companies reporting increased instances of mobile devices using Wi-Fi rather than traditional airwaves include AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., according to the FCC’s order.

Companies backing the FCC’s plan include Comcast, Broadcom Inc. and Facebook Inc., the agency said. Facebook lobbied the agency to ensure that users could access the frequencies outdoors as well as indoors.

FCC Versus DOT

AT&T and T-Mobile Inc. in filings told the FCC it should retain the entire airwaves swath for use by automotive safety.

Pai brushed aside objections from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who said reassigning the airwaves risks throttling ongoing efforts to build wireless safety systems that could help prevent vehicle crashes.

The FCC has “ignored or rejected” comments from the Transportation Department, Chao said in an Oct. 15 letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department arm that referees federal airwaves uses.

The FCC order calls for devoting most of the auto-safety airwaves to broadband uses including Wi-Fi for routers. The remainder of the swath goes to a new cellular connected-vehicle technology. The agency decided against retaining a sliver for the legacy safety system. That system “has barely been deployed, meaning this spectrum has been largely unused,” the FCC said in its proposed order.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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