Connected cars may lose exclusive Wi-Fi access band under FCC proposal
WASHINGTON -- Facing intense pressure to open up more airwaves to Wi-Fi devices, regulators today voted to rethink a 1999 decision giving vehicles exclusive access to part of the wireless spectrum as a way to make driving safer.
Automakers want to use the 5.9 GHz band to transmit signals for "connected-car" technologies, which would allow vehicles to communicate with other vehicles. It is also a top priority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which says the features could eliminate 80 percent of accidents that occur when a driver is not impaired.
During a hearing today, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to advance a proposal that would open up that same band to devices such as computers and cell phones.
The FCC is not expected to issue a final rule until next year at the earliest.
Congestion at airports, convention centers and other areas of heavy use is getting worse year by year, which justifies opening up more spectrum for Wi-Fi devices, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said during a commission meeting today.
"Putting these bands to better commercial use could have tremendous benefits," Commissioner Ajit Pai said before the vote.
In the weeks before the hearing, groups such as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers urged the FCC not to open up the 5.9 GHz band to other uses.
The trade group, which has 13 members including General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., says the move would endanger a technology that is getting closer to the marketplace. That is because other signals could create interference.
Genachowski downplayed those concerns, saying FCC engineers are confident the technologies can coexist.
"Virtually every Wi-Fi band that's in use now -- if not every one -- is also used by other services," he told reporters after the vote. "This is one of the challenges that we certainly have to work out," he added. "It's not a challenge that's different in kind from others in the space."
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is studying whether new uses of the 5.9 GHz band could be managed.
Automakers have asked the FCC to wait for that report.
"Automakers have already invested heavily in the research and development of these safety critical systems, and our successes have been based on working closely with our federal partners," the alliance said in a statement after today's vote. "It is imperative that, as we move forward, we do adequate research and testing on potential interference issues that could arise from opening up this band to unlicensed users and that the commission not rush to judgment."
But Genachowski said that with the NTIA report not expected until the end of 2014, and demand for Wi-Fi access growing rapidly, "consultation can't be an excuse for delay."
Top officials at NHTSA have praised the potential of connected car technology, but they have not formally decided whether to mandate the use of the technology or issue standards for its use.
NHTSA is currently testing connected-car technology. It put 3,000 connected cars, buses and trucks on roads in Ann Arbor, Mich., last August to gather data.
That pilot project concludes this summer. After that, NHTSA is expected to make a decision on light-duty vehicles in 2013, followed by a decision on heavy-duty vehicles in 2014.
You can reach Gabe Nelson at email@example.com.