By Kelcee Griffis
Law360 – The Federal Communications Commission formalized plans Wednesday to divide the 5.9 GHz spectrum band between auto safety and unlicensed wireless services, dealing a huge win to Wi-Fi providers that argue the band will unlock more internet bandwidth for consumers.
Despite the reservations of some congressional Democrats and the FCC’s two Democrats, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai pushed ahead with a vote that dedicates over half of the band for unlicensed web traffic and allocates less than half for a cellular-based auto-safety technology known as C-V2X.
The vote displaces a previous generation of crash-avoidance technology known as DSRC, which some automakers maintain still holds promise for allowing vehicles and roadway infrastructure to communicate, therefore reducing traffic accidents.
“The sad fact is that DSRC has done virtually nothing to improve automobile safety. A few corporate interests cannot squat on this spectrum for a generation and expect to maintain a stranglehold on it just by giving it the empty slogan of the ‘safety spectrum,'” Pai said.
He pointed out that other spectrum bands — such as the 900 MHz band, the 2.4 GHz band and the 76-81 GHz bands — have already been made available for applications like vehicular radar systems and traffic light signal coordination.
“I am optimistic that C-V2X will actually deliver what DSRC advocates only promised for years: a widely adopted, widely deployed automotive safety technology that will save lives on the road,” Pai said.
The vote, initially teed up in December, solicited enthusiastic responses from the wireless industry, including some wireless internet providers that have already used the 5.9 GHz on a temporary basis to power rural internet signals during the pandemic.
“These temporary grants of authority enabled many of our members to quickly and effectively meet increased capacity demands brought about by the onset of COVID-19,” said Louis Peraertz, a policy executive for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. “They are potent case studies that show how the band can be used to keep us safe and connected.”
Although Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has worked for years with her Republican colleague FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to bring the 5.9 GHz reallocation to fruition, she cast a concurring vote that stopped short of fully approving the item.
She cited concerns from Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who asked the FCC to pause the vote until after the incoming Democratic administration is installed.
House Democratic leaders previously asked the agency to freeze any “controversial” work until January, and the 5.9 GHz band has generated a fair amount of pushback both from some automakers and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Fellow FCC Democrat Geoffrey Starks joined Rosenworcel in casting a concurring vote.
House Democrats, however, didn’t seem similarly constrained to criticize the vote. Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., all tweeted support for the item, and McNerney said in a statement that the vote on recalibrating the band was “long overdue.”
Pai referenced these showings of support and labeled the Senate Democrats’ calls as “performative requests for delay.”
The Wednesday vote authorizes wireless companies to begin servicing indoor devices immediately. A further rulemaking will tackle the appropriate parameters for outdoor signals, ensuring that they won’t interfere with C-V2X transmissions.