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Pai proposes opening auto airwaves for WiFi

A photo of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai standing and speaking in front of the FCC logo.
Ajit Pai. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai offered a path forward Wednesday for the cable industry to gain access to airwaves for WiFi in a long-running spectrum battle with automakers.

The big picture: Car companies and cable providers have been feuding over a swath of spectrum that was set aside 20 years ago for vehicle safety communications but never widely used for that purpose.

  • The cable industry and WiFi advocates want to use those airwaves for super-speedy WiFi as consumer demand increases amid connected devices.
  • The auto industry says the spectrum should be used for vehicle safety.

Driving the news: Pai's proposal, to be voted on at the commission's Dec. 12 meeting, would allocate the lower 45 megahertz of the band for unlicensed use such as WiFi, while setting aside up to 30 megahertz for vehicle safety technology.

  • "We are well past the point where American consumers should accept significant additional delays in putting this spectrum to work for them," Pai said at a Wednesday event hosted by Citizens Against Government Waste, New America's Open Technology Institute and WifiForward.
  • The technology that airwaves originally were designated for — Dedicated Short-Range Communications, or DSRC — has not been fully deployed across all vehicles, which is what needs to happen to allow cars to "talk" to each other.
  • Instead, a coalition of automakers (including Ford) and telecom companies is pushing a new technology for the band, which they call cellular-vehicle-to-everything. Pai said his proposal would allow that technology in the upper 20 megahertz, and seeks comment on whether to allocate the remaining 10 megahertz to that tech or the older DSRC.

Flashback: Pai announced the agency would consider repurposing the airwaves in a speech in May, but delayed the plans after pushback from Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.