In a move long feared in the auto industry, the Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday it will seek to split a band of spectrum that's currently reserved for automotive safety purposes.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a proposal that calls for more than half of the bandwidth available on the 5.9-gigahertz spectrum to be opened for use by the wireless telecommunications industry. An initial vote by the commission is scheduled for Dec. 12.
For two decades, that swath of spectrum has been reserved so the auto industry could bring forth systems that allow cars to communicate with each other, potentially reducing substantially the number of crashes on U.S. roadways.
There have been limited deployments of such technologies. But auto companies have held back on more widespread use of the spectrum, in part because they've squabbled over the particular technology used to transmit those safety messages.
Some automakers have preferred Dedicated Short-Range Communications while some have desired cellular technology. Since a critical mass of users is necessary to make the system effective, it has been viewed as important that all companies ultimately choose the same technology. Both operate on the 5.9-GHz spectrum.
The auto industry now faces the prospect of losing a significant portion of the spectrum altogether. Most companies aren't sure whether these safety messages could be sent without latency if they share the spectrum with nonautomotive purposes.
"In a country that reels from nearly 36,000 roadway deaths every year, it is unfathomable that the United States would literally give away our top safety tool," said Shailen Bhatt, CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.
In making his proposal to split the spectrum, Pai compared the sharing of the spectrum to how the World Series-winning Washington Nationals considered building their baseball team, making tough decisions on letting high-priced free agents leave in favor of using the savings to add complementary players.
His proposal would splinter the current 75 megahertz band. The lower 45 megahertz would be reserved for unlicensed uses, such as wifi. Automotive would receive 20 megahertz for cellular vehicle communications, known in the industry as C-V2X. Pai said public input should be requested to determine whether the remaining 10 megahertz should be earmarked for DSRC or C-V2X.
"This is essentially the winning formula the FCC seeks to replicate with the 5.9-GHz band," he wrote in remarks delivered in Washington, D.C. "Move on from something we've tried for a long time that wasn't working, and open the door to exciting, new alternatives."
In the past, the Department of Transportation has opposed FCC overtures toward sharing the spectrum. The DOT had not responded to a request for comment Wednesday, but the FCC proposal likely increases the tension between the two government agencies regarding the issue.