'Connected car' band would open to other Wi-Fi devices under Senate bill

WASHINGTON -- Legislation introduced in the Senate could open up the band of wireless communication airwaves currently reserved for vehicle-to-vehicle communications designed to improve road safety to other Wi-Fi devices.

Automakers have had exclusive access to the 5.9 GHz wireless spectrum band to test and develop “connected car” technologies, which allow vehicles to communicate with other vehicles on the road and alert drivers of potential hazards to avoid crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration views connected cars as a top priority, saying the technology could eliminate some 80 percent of traffic accidents where the driver is not impaired.

The bill, introduced late Thursday by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and co-sponsored by Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., is part of a broader legislative push by Rubio to expand wireless broadband access to meet the growing connectivity needs of businesses and consumers. But auto industry groups are concerned that opening the connected car spectrum to nonautomotive users could create interference in vehicle-to-vehicle communications and put safety improvements at risk.

The bill seeks to grant Wi-Fi devices such as smartphones or businesses with wireless hot spots access to the 5.9 GHz wireless spectrum. It would order the Federal Communications Commission to test the feasibility of opening the spectrum to nonautomotive users and seek comments about the move. According to a statement from Rubio’s office, the bill also seeks to balance the needs of connected car development while “also maximizing the use of the band for shared purposes.”

More study needed

Auto industry groups also say more study is needed to ensure that connected cars can coexist on the same wireless spectrum with consumers and businesses without interfering in vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

The Association of Global Automakers, a trade group representing foreign automakers including Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Nissan and others, issued a statement expressing “concern” that opening up the spectrum band to so-called unlicensed users is “putting at risk the opportunity to save thousands of lives through the development of vehicle-to-vehicle communications.”

John Bozzella, CEO of Global Automakers, said in a statement that “the lifesaving benefits of V2V communications are within reach. Given what’s at stake, an ill-informed decision on this spectrum is a gamble.”

In a statement, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing companies including General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and Toyota, said while it does not object to sharing the spectrum, “we’ve long advocated that legislators and regulators must take a ‘do no harm’ approach and ensure that there is no harmful interference to the dedicated short range communications that allow vehicles to communicate with each other and infrastructure.”

The Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a connected car advocacy group, said in a statement that work is already underway to study whether nonautomotive Wi-Fi devices can safely operate on the 5.9 GHz spectrum used for connected car testing, and that the process should continue “without arbitrary deadlines, restrictive parameters or political pressure that could influence the outcome.”

In its statement, ITS America quoted testimony from a Department of Transportation official expressing “serious concern” about spectrum sharing that may interfere with connected car communications designed to improve road safety.

“At this time, the Department is unaware of any existing or proposed technical solution which guarantees interference-free operation” of safety-critical connected car systems “while allowing Wifi enabled devices to share the 5.9 GHz spectrum,” Gregory Winfree, assistant secretary for research and technology at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said earlier this week before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Rubio agenda

Expanding access to wireless broadband coverage by freeing up parts of the spectrum currently restricted by the government is a key piece of Rubio’s legislative agenda. The Florida Republican, sometimes mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, says current government restrictions to parts of the wireless spectrum are stifling innovation amid surging demand for wireless data connectivity.

The bill also comes after the Department of Transportation in February announced plans to draft connected car regulations that would place wireless chips in new cars and trucks so they can communicate with each other. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at the time that a mandate for vehicle-to-vehicle communications would be proposed by the time President Barack Obama leaves office.

This isn’t the first test of the industry’s exclusive rights to the “connected car” spectrum. In February 2013, the FCC voted to consider opening the spectrum to other Wi-Fi users.

At the time, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said, “Putting these bands to better commercial use could have tremendous benefits.”

You can reach Ryan Beene at autonews@crain.com

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