WASHINGTON — As automakers and suppliers develop and deploy wireless technologies that can improve the driving experience and advance roadway safety, they want the Biden administration to keep the industry in mind as the demand for radio frequency spectrum rapidly grows.
In an effort to improve spectrum access and management broadly, the White House in November unveiled the National Spectrum Strategy, a four-pillar blueprint to guide decisions on how to allocate limited spectrum resources as new innovations from the auto industry and other sectors increasingly depend on access.
For the auto industry, the administration's attention to spectrum is critical, as "the current spectrum supply for automotive technologies is lagging behind the pace of innovative new use cases that enhance transportation safety, sustainability and convenience," Hilary Cain, vice president of technology, innovation and mobility policy at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, wrote in comments to the Biden administration in April.
Cain, 46, spoke with Staff Reporter Audrey LaForest about the National Spectrum Strategy and what it means for the auto industry. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: Why is the National Spectrum Strategy important to the auto industry?
A: What we are finding is that as the industry is transitioning to an electrified and automated and more advanced safety feature-enabled future, many more of those technologies are requiring access to spectrum, and so spectrum is becoming a key enabler of the industry to manage this transition.
What are some current or emerging spectrum use cases for the auto industry?
There's been a lot of focus over the last dozen years on vehicle-to-everything (V2X) and the benefits that technology could bring. That continues to be a huge priority, but what we're finding is that our needs are not limited to V2X. Examples would include ultra-wideband technology, which is something that is enabling key fobs, for example, but is seen as a connectivity technology that can unleash a whole host of other innovations. The 60-gigahertz band is something the Federal Communications Commission recently completed a proceeding on, which we appreciated and wanted, that helped enable in-cabin radar technologies. Bluetooth is something that's already in vehicles and is going to be increasingly necessary. We are planning on doing some engagement relatively soon on needs related to EV wireless charging, which will require some spectrum rules changes. Those are just some, but a whole host of future technologies will be reliant on spectrum bands other than the 5.9-GHz band where we've been focused predominantly over the last 10 years.
How does the final National Spectrum Strategy stack up to what the alliance was asking for in its public comments?
The good news is that we saw the strategy made several references to transportation. It made a reference to autonomous vehicles. We appreciated that the administration seemed to appreciate and understand that the auto industry and the transportation sector more broadly have increasing spectrum needs. Our comments talked about the importance of coordination and collaboration among federal agencies. We had specifically mentioned that our regulatory agencies such as the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency should have some role or at least some engagement with the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on spectrum needs for transportation and the auto industry, and we certainly saw the strategy prioritize federal agency coordination, so that was helpful. We also mentioned the need for international harmonization.
One of the challenges is there is limited spectrum available. The auto industry already saw the FCC in 2020 vote to split the 5.9-GHz band that was long reserved for auto safety. How concerning is this for the auto industry?
That is our biggest concern. Spectrum is a finite resource. As more and more sectors, including the automotive sector, need access to increasing amounts of spectrum, agencies such as the FCC are challenged. It's hard to meet everyone's needs, so certainly the 5.9-GHz proceeding in 2020 was the first exposure to that.
We did identify one area in the spectrum strategy where we may have similar challenges. The administration identifies a handful of bands it is going to study for expanded broadband needs, and one they have identified is a band used by automakers for key fobs, for ultra-wideband-enabled key fobs. I expect that we will express some significant reservations about the possibility of repurposing that band to broadband because it could have pretty significant implications for key fobs that are already in the market.
What about spectrum interference? Is this still a concern, and does the White House strategy address it?
There are a couple of things that the administration could do. One is they could repurpose the band. They could say this band is no longer available for ultra-wideband and is instead only available for broadband, and so that would be a full repurposing, which would be problematic. The other model is sharing, and the spectrum strategy is very big on trying to find new ways of sharing spectrum. Under that scenario, maybe the band could be used by both ultra-wideband and broadband, and that's where interference might be an issue. So if both uses are taking place simultaneously in the band, you could see a situation where broadband communications are interfering with key fob communications, and folks are having challenges unlocking their car, for example, or starting their car, and that would obviously be disconcerting.
Describe the auto industry's growing demand for spectrum. What does that look like, and how is that expected to evolve?
I've been in the auto industry working on spectrum issues for a dozen years, and when I first came into the industry, we were only talking about 5.9 GHz and V2X. Twelve years later, as I work with our member companies on our connectivity-related priorities, 5.9 GHz is still important, but it's one of half a dozen, at least, proceedings we are tracking and monitoring and engaged on. I would only expect that's going to grow over time. I wouldn't be surprised if 12 years from now, we had interest as an industry in dozens of proceedings at the FCC. It's grown dramatically in the last decade, and I only anticipate it'll continue to grow.