FCC chairman Ajit Pai and commissioners testify before Congress, Dec. 5. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Thursday to take a swath of airwaves long set aside for auto safety and open it up for WiFi and other uses.

The big picture: The FCC's proposal comes over the objections of the Department of Transportation. It wanted to preserve the 5.9 GHz band for car-to-car communications aimed at preventing crashes and eventually managing traffic once self-driving and semi-autonomous vehicles hit the roads.

Driving the news: The FCC asks for comment on its plan to divvy up the airwaves, 75 MHz in total. It plans to open 45 MHz for unlicensed use like WiFi and set aside 30 megahertz for auto safety tech.

  • All 75 MHz of spectrum was set aside 20 years ago for a type of vehicle safety communications that the auto industry never delivered.
  • Under the proposal, the FCC may leave some of the 30 MHz chunk of airwaves open to that earlier proposed tech. Or it may designate that whole swath for a new type of so-called "cellular-vehicle-to-everything" technology.
  • Cable companies and WiFi advocates have been pushing for access to the airwaves, while Ford and the 5G Automotive Association want to use the spectrum for the new tech.

What they're saying: Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who have long called for action on 5.9 GHz, welcomed the vote.

  • But the Department of Transportation still has "significant concerns" with the proposal, a spokesperson said.
  • The department wants to keep this part of the spectrum reserved for auto safety and let the market determine what technology ends up providing communications toward that end.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment from the Department of Transportation.

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