Jan 24, 2020 - Technology

Government agencies collide over airwaves for road safety tech

Animated illustration of two bumper cars bumping into each other.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Two arms of the Trump administration are facing off over airwaves long set aside so cars can eventually communicate with each other.

What's happening: The Transportation Department is pouring money into what it says will be life-saving connected-car tech that would ride on these mostly unused airwaves. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission is moving to reallocate most of the same spectrum to expand WiFi service.

Why it matters: DOT argues that if the FCC prevails — and it's currently in the driver's seat — lives will be lost and America will fall behind in the development of self-driving cars.

  • The FCC says automakers squandered a chance to use the dedicated spectrum, and now it should be shared to support exploding demand for mobile services and smartphones.
  • The FCC proposes repurposing some 45 of the 75 MHz frequencies total of so-called "safety spectrum" for WiFi, leaving 30 MHz for connected cars.
  • Safety advocates and DOT say that's not enough, and worry that commercial WiFi will interfere with vehicle-to-vehicle communications in an emergency, rendering the technology unworkable even with some spectrum left intact for it.

The big picture: The dispute pits two Washington power brokers against one another.

  • Ajit Pai is the Trump-appointed chairman of the FCC, an independent agency overseen by Congress.
  • Elaine Chao is secretary of Transportation and married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

What they're saying: The standoff is growing increasingly hostile.

  • Chao has urged Pai to call off his plan, taking to several January speeches to press DOT's view that all the spectrum should remain dedicated to auto safety. "DOT has significant concerns with the Commission's proposal," she wrote Pai in a November letter, saying it "jeopardizes the significant transportation safety benefits that the allocation of this band was meant to foster."
  • An FCC spokesperson tells Axios the proposal offers a balanced approach by providing spectrum for both transportation safety and WiFi. "We would encourage the Department of Transportation to contribute productively to this important discussion rather than devoting its efforts to defending the failed status quo."

What to watch: The FCC is an independent agency and its bipartisan members voted 5-0 to proceed with the reallocation — a reality not lost on DOT officials, they admit privately.

  • But DOT seems to be counting on a groundswell of opposition from first responders and advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Foundation for the Blind to convince FCC to rethink its plan.
  • If there's enough of an uproar, Congress could get involved too. The leaders of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee sent a letter to the FCC on Wednesday expressing "substantial concerns" over the proposal.
  • A comment period on FCC's proposal is expected to begin soon.

Background: In 1999, the FCC set aside part of the communications spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for the development of a dedicated short-range communication (DSRC), technology that would allow vehicles to communicate with each other and with devices planted alongside roads.

  • DSRC has been slow to develop, but meanwhile, a competing technology, C-V2X, has emerged. Some roadside units could accommodate both technologies, but in either case, WiFi interference is a long-term concern for many in the transportation industry.

Where it stands: Companies, and even the DOT, continue to invest in both technologies anyway.

The bottom line: Chao will have to hope for a public uproar against the FCC's plan, or else expend some of her substantial political capital, to keep road safety tech from losing out to the push for faster internet speeds.

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