Automakers Poised to Lose Airwaves Rights as FCC Drops a Promise

(Bloomberg) —

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai plans to advance a proposal to take back some airwaves long promised to automakers, and instead allow other wireless uses on the frequencies, according to people familiar with the matter.

Pai intends to set a Dec. 12 vote by the commission, where he leads a Republican majority, on the proposal to modify the grant of airwaves the agency made 20 years ago, said two people briefed on the plan. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter hasn’t been made public.

The FCC vote would request comments on letting Wi-Fi gadgets occupy part of the airwaves while letting automakers utilize the remainder of the swath. So far automakers have had exclusive rights to the entire frequency band for a technology they’ve barely used. The change wouldn’t be final until another vote by the FCC, which under Pai has worked to free airwaves bands for new uses.

Brian Hart, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment.

In letters sent to several lawmakers earlier this month, Pai said the auto industry has made little use of the airwaves while consumer demand for wireless spectrum has exploded.

“It is long past time for rethinking the highest-valued use of this public resource,” Pai wrote. “That is why I support a comprehensive conversation about how to proceed in the context of a notice of proposed rulemaking.”

Cable providers who offer Wi-Fi for customers’ wireless use are hungry for spectrum as digital technology transforms everything from cars to video feeds and household appliances.

More airwaves are needed to help “deliver a future of ubiquitous connectivity,” Charter Communications Inc. said in a Nov. 12 filing. Charter’s network supports more than 300 million devices, the Stamford, Connecticut-based company said.

The airwaves could be used for fast communications including machine-to-machine links, and smart city applications such as smart cameras, traffic monitoring and security sensors; NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, a trade group for companies including Comcast Corp. and Charter told the FCC in a Sept. 25 filing.

Auto industry companies including General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Denso Corp. spent more than a decade developing a communications system that would use the airwaves. The technology called vehicle-to-vehicle, or “V2V,” links cars, roadside beacons and traffic lights into a seamless wireless web to avoid collisions and heed speed limits. Yet deployments have been few, and no major automakers produce cars using the technology in the U.S.

The auto industry has broadly shifted to favor a newer technology based on cellular systems. Ford, for instance, announced earlier this year that it will outfit all its new U.S. models starting in 2022 with cellular vehicle-to-everything technology. The system would enable Ford’s cars to communicate with one another about road hazards, send signals to stop lights to smooth traffic flow and pay fast-food bills automatically while picking up meals.

Automakers and their allies last year asked the FCC to let them use part of the band for cellular-based technology — rather than the Wi-Fi format the agency mandated in 1999 — while preserving all of the airwaves for transportation safety. In a petition the companies said the newer, cellular technology is more reliable, with greater range.

Transportation Department officials have resisted giving away swaths of the spectrum allocated to improve road safety. At a Wednesday Senate hearing on automated driving systems, James Owens, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, reiterated that view.

“We’re hoping to preserve that 75 megahertz because it is now time, the technology is now there, that we can start deploying this potentially life-saving technology,” Owens said.

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