Safety in Name, Commercial in Fact: The Auto Industry Spectrum Squatting Campaign on 5.9 GHz Widens the Digital Divide
from the not-helping dept
Here’s an idea for a business model. Instead of using valuable spectrum to close the digital divide by opening it for everyone to use, get the FCC to give us exclusive use for free. Next, convince states and the federal government that rather than build broadband networks to the disconnected in rural America, they should build out our network (also at no cost to us). Then we will use this network to harvest everyone’s driving information while serving up advertisements and other commercial services. In order to persuade taxpayers to support it, we’ll pretend the network is “absolutely essential” to preventing car accidents, despite the recent development of superior technology. To really sell the idea, we’ll label this piece of spectrum the “Safety Band.”
Welcome to the auto industry business plan for the 5.9 GHz band, 75 MHz of spectrum originally allocated to the auto industry for free back in 2004. However, the FCC is now proposing to reclaim 45 MHz of this for much-needed rural broadband and Wi-Fi 6 to better connect America. This would leave 30 MHz for intelligent traffic management and auto safety technologies, but would not leave any space available for the auto industry’s commercial applications.
Needless to say, the auto industry opposes this tooth and nail, and has enlisted the help of the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to block the FCC’s effort to help close the digital divide. Additionally, the auto industry has consistently opposed efforts by consumer groups to have the FCC prohibit commercial uses and impose privacy protections on the band. Americans will be far better served — and much safer on the road — if the FCC follows through on its plan to repurpose the commercial part of the auto industry’s “safety band” for other uses.
A Brief History of 5.9 GHz – From “Safety Band” to $afety Band
For nearly two decades, the auto industry has pushed the idea of wireless “intelligent traffic” systems as a means of promoting safety. At the same time, however, the auto industry has made it equally clear to investors and equipment designers that the industry intends to use this network for commercial purposes as well. In 2004, the FCC adopted the auto industry plan to take 75 MHz of spectrum and reserve it exclusively for “Dedicated Short-Range Communications” (DSRC) for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) (and generically “V2X”) communications. However — unlike other bands reserved for public safety purposes at the time — the FCC permitted the auto industry to use these reserved frequencies for commercial purposes as well as safety purposes. The FCC restricts only two channels (totaling 20 MHz) to “collision avoidance” and “safety-of-life” applications, leaving the bulk of the spectrum available for commercial use.
Despite support from the auto industry, DSRC technology failed to catch on in the market.
There were many reasons for this. For one thing, V2X technologies only work to avoid collisions if the other car has a compatible V2X technology. This makes it absolutely useless against existing cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, or even stray deer. Other technologies, like LIDAR, do a much better job avoiding collisions, which is why these technologies caught on in the market and DSRC remains virtually undeployed. The auto industry responded to this market rejection by persuading the NHTSA to start a rulemaking to require DSRC in every new car whether consumers wanted the technology or not, and convincing federal and state agencies to invest hundreds of millions of dollars building DSRC “safety networks” for the auto industry to use for free. (The Trump Administration killed the DSRC rulemaking as part of its general deregulatory agenda in 2017.)
Reclaiming 5.9 GHz for Rural Broadband and Gigabit Wi-Fi to Connect America
The FCC began a set of proceedings in 2013 to expand the spectrum available for unlicensed uses with a particular eye toward expanding the 5 GHz band generally. For technical reasons, expanding existing bands creates huge advantages for increasing available bandwidth. The FCC hoped to expand the unlicensed portions of the 5 GHz band to enhance the ability of rural wireless internet service providers (WISPs) using the existing 5.8 GHz unlicensed band to offer real broadband in rural America, and creating the capacity for gigabit Wi-Fi in people’s homes. The FCC initially tried to work with the auto industry and NHTSA to find a way for unlicensed sharing to co-exist on a non-interfering basis with DSRC. That, to put it mildly, did not go well.
After nearly 20 years of waiting for the auto industry to make use of the 5.9 GHz band, and spending five years trying to work with the auto industry on a win-win solution, the FCC finally had enough. A unanimous FCC voted last December to propose simply taking away the 45 MHz of spectrum that the auto industry wants for commercial uses, leaving the auto industry with the 30 MHz needed to do actual safety and collision avoidance. (As the FCC noted, this 30 MHz is approximately what both Japan and the European Union allocate for similar technology.) The FCC proposal would also open the 30 MHz safety band to other V2X technologies, such as LTE-based V2X, that use existing mobile networks.
Needless to say, the auto industry did not take this lying down. Lobbyists have pressed the “safety band” argument consistently, while acting offended whenever someone points out that 30 MHz leaves them plenty of spectrum for actual highway safety uses if the industry just drops the commercial aspect. Of course, the auto industry says it’s “not about the money.” The industry claims it just expects even more awesome safety features at some indefinite time in the future and therefore requires all 75 MHz of spectrum for when that magical day arrives. In the meantime, though, the auto industry argues it might as well use the extra 45 MHz of spectrum for collecting people’s personal driving information and serving them personal ads — solely in the name of efficiency, of course.
For the Auto Industry, It’s About the Money — Not Saving Lives
As the old adage goes, when someone says, “it’s not the money, it’s the principle,” you know it’s about the money. In 2016, Public Knowledge — joined by a number of other public interest organizations — asked the FCC to prohibit commercial operation on the entire DSRC service and to impose privacy rules preventing the auto industry from using the information it collects from consumers for commercial purposes.
Furthermore, although publicly defending the V2X as a life-saving technology, the auto industry has pressed developers to include commercial applications in equipment and as an explicit part of the business case for adopting the technology. Even NHSTA, the regulator-turned-advocate for the auto industry, touts the commercial uses of DSRC and other V2X technologies.
As the FCC draws closer to a decision, expect to hear more from the auto industry and its surrogates about how the “safety band” saves lives while Wi-Fi just streams Netflix and cat videos. As hopefully everyone has learned in the current pandemic, access to broadband absolutely saves lives. Reclaiming 45 MHz from the 5.9 GHz band will help bring real broadband to rural America and to everyone dependent on Wi-Fi hotspots for access. The auto industry will still have plenty of dedicated spectrum for an actual safety band — it just won’t be a $afety band.
Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President. For more than 20 years, Feld has practiced law at the intersection of technology, broadband, and media policy in both the private sector and in the public interest community. Feld has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Boston University, and clerked for the D.C. Court of Appeals.